Despite living in an era of oppressive professional sexism, pioneering astronomer Vera C. Rubin helped find powerful evidence of dark matter – mysterious cosmic “glue” that makes it possible for galaxies to exist. Her incredible findings should have gotten her a Nobel prize, but she was never awarded one, and never will be – Rubin passed away at age 88 several weeks ago.
There are people that argue against her Nobel-worthiness by saying that dark matter is still technically theoretical. Some scientists are working on alternate theories to explain the way the Universe works. But how can we explain the fact that three men – Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess – were awarded a Nobel prize for the discovery of dark energy? Their findings are no less important, but no less theoretical either. No doubt, there’s still much to be done for the sake of gender equality when it comes to science.
At age 10, Rubin used to spend her nights watching meteorite showers, trying to memorize where the stars went, so she could make a map of their trails
Vera Rubin as an undergraduate at Vassar, 1940s.
It was in the 1930s and 1940s, an era of oppressive professional sexism, but her dad helped her build a telescope nonetheless – she was determined to become an astronomer
In 1948, Rubin graduated as the only astronomy major from the elite private school Vassar College. She wanted to continue her studies in Princeton University, but at that time women were not accepted in its astronomy program (that policy was not abandoned until 1975), so she went to Cornell University. She later got a PH.D at Georgetown University in 1954.
Rubin discovered the evidence for dark matter while working as a researcher at the Carnegie Institution in Washington in the 1970s
Together with a fellow researcher Kent Ford, Rubin wanted to discover how stars orbit their galactic centers. They also tried to figure the distribution of mass in the Andromeda galaxy. Rubin and Ford expected to see it rotate just like the solar system, where objects that are closer to the center move faster than ones on the outskirts. What they saw was unbelievable – gas and stars traveled at the same speed despite the distance from the galactic center. Though Rubin didn’t know what it meant yet, she knew that something is out there and it interacts with gravity.
Rubin and Kent Ford (white hat) check on their equipment at Lowell Observatory in 1965 during one of their first observing runs together. Photo by Carnegie Institution, Department of Terrestrial Magnetism.
She was also a strong advocate for the gender equality in science, having faced institutionalized misogyny herself. She carried these three assumptions with her at all times:
“(1) There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman.
(2) Worldwide, half of all brains are in women.
(3) We all need permission to do science, but, for reasons that are deeply ingrained in history, this permission is more often given to men than to women.”
Rubin went to study astronomy, when her high-school teacher advised her to “stay away from science,” got a PH.D even though Princeton didn’t accept her because she was a woman, and presented her graduate thesis while pregnant, despite the fact she was discouraged to do so as it may have been an “inconvenience.”
Rubin (second from left) with colleagues at the Women in Astronomy and Space Science Conference. Photo by NASA.
When Rubin was invited to observe at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory – the first woman ever allowed to work in that boys club – she integrated female bathrooms all by herself
“She went to her room, she cut up paper into a skirt image, and she stuck it on the little person image on the door of the bathroom,” Neta Bahcall, a former colleague, told Astronomy Magazine in a June 2016 interview. “She said, ‘There you go; now you have a ladies’ room.'”
“No girls allowed. Nah nah Pbbbbffffbbbtt.” Photo by Coneslayer/Wikimedia Commons.
And while many people were outraged that she wasn’t awarded a Nobel Prize, Rubin didn’t seem to care much about her fame
“Fame is fleeting,” Rubin told Discover magazine in 1990. “My numbers mean more to me than my name. If astronomers are still using my data years from now, that’s my greatest compliment.”
Rubin operates the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Kent Ford’s spectograph is attached so they can measure the speed of matter at different distances from galaxies’ centers. Photo by NOAO/AURA/NSF.
“Don’t let anyone keep you down for silly reasons such as who you are,” Rubin once counseled Rebecca Oppenheimer. “And don’t worry about prizes and fame. The real prize is finding something new out there.”
Dr. Rubin in 2010 at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Credit Linda Davidson/The Washington Post, via Getty Images