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Vera Rubin with her measuring engine

Vera Rubin (1928–2016)

“Science is competitive, aggressive, demanding. It is also imaginative, inspiring, uplifting.”
–Vera Rubin

National Medal of Science recipient in 1993 “for her pioneering research programs in observational cosmology which demonstrated that much of the matter in the universe is dark, and for significant contributions to the realization that the universe is more complex and more mysterious than had been imagined.”

Vera Rubin developed an interest in astronomy as a 10-year-old watching the stars from her bedroom window in Washington, D.C. Her father helped her build her own telescope and took her to amateur astronomer’s meetings, and she was the only astronomy major to graduate from Vassar College in 1948.

Rubin requested a graduate catalog from Princeton University, but did not hear back--Princeton would not accept female graduate students in astronomy for another quarter century. Instead, she earned her master’s degree from Cornell University, where she took courses from Hans Bethe and Richard Feynman and met her future husband, Robert Rubin. In 1950, she moved on to Georgetown University as a doctoral student and ultimately became a member of the faculty.

During Rubin’s time at Georgetown, her husband drove her to school and ate dinner in the car while she attended class, and her parents watched their four children, all of whom grew up to earn their own Ph.D.s in science or mathematics.

Rubin’s early work was not easily accepted by her colleagues in the field--her doctoral dissertation was ignored, and her master’s thesis, which she revisited as a researcher at the Carnegie Institute, was largely controversial. In hopes of yielding less contentious findings, Rubin teamed up with Kent Ford, an astronomer who had developed an advanced spectrometer, and began to study spiral galaxies. To their surprise, Rubin and Ford discovered that the outer stars in a spiral galaxy rotate as quickly as those at the center, which suggested that there had to be something else in the galaxy providing extra gravity.

This observation provided compelling evidence for the existence of dark matter, first proposed by Fritz Zwicky in 1933 but rejected by most scientists until Rubin and Ford revealed their findings (now known as the Rubin-Ford effect). As Rubin explained, “In a spiral galaxy, the ratio of dark-to-light matter is about a factor of 10. That’s probably a good number for the ratio of our ignorance-to-knowledge. We’re out of kindergarten, but only in about third grade.”

Rubin’s innovative research on dark matter has secured her role as a respected member of the scientific community. Herself an observant Jew, Rubin was appointed by Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996.

“In my own life, my science and my religion are separate,” Rubin said. “I try to do my science in a moral way, and, I believe that, ideally, science should be looked upon as something that helps us understand our role in the universe.”

She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and has an asteroid named after her--5726 Rubin. Since 1978, Rubin has continued to explore the universe at Carnegie Institute, having examined over 200 galaxies.

Her current research focuses on low-surface brightness galaxies, where most of the mass is composed of dark matter. She has said that her hope is for astronomers to still be using her data years down the road.

“We have peered into a new world,” she said, “and have seen that it is more mysterious and more complex than we had imagined. Still, more mysteries of the universe remain hidden. Their discovery awaits the adventurous scientists of the future. I like it this way.”

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