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Nasty Woman #2: Vera Rubin

March 5, 2017

Each one of you can change the world, for you are made of star stuff, and you are connected to the universe. --Vera Rubin

 

 

 

Vera Rubin, who died on Christmas Day, 2016, transformed modern physics and astronomy by confirming the existence of dark matter surrounding galaxies and stars.

 

In the 1960s and 70s, Rubin, along with astronomer Kent Ford, was studying the behavior of spiral galaxies, when they noticed that the stars at the outside of the galaxies were moving as fast as the stars in the middle. According to NPR’s contributing astrophysicist Adam Frank,

 

Rubin and others reasoned there had to be a giant sphere of invisible stuff surrounding the stars in these galaxies, tugging on them and speeding up their orbits around the galaxy's center.

 

In other words, galaxies are rotating so fast that they should fly apart if all that’s holding them together is the gravitational pull of what we see emitting light; since they are not flying apart, an unseen mass must be holding them together. Dr. Rubin wrote,

 

As much as 90 percent of the mass of the universe is evidently not radiating at any wavelength with enough intensity to be detected on the earth. Originally astronomers described the nonluminous component as "missing matter." Today they recognize that it is not missing; it is just not visible.

 

What made Dr. Rubin’s insights so extraordinary was not only her confirmation of the existence of dark matter, but her greater understanding that the universe is still largely unknown to us. This was a major shift in the field of astrophysics. According to her obituary in The New York Times,

 

Her work helped usher in a Copernican-scale change in cosmic consciousness, namely the realization that what astronomers always saw and thought was the universe is just the visible tip of a lumbering iceberg of mystery.

 

And in her own words,

 

We know very little about the universe. 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.

 

She added in another interview: “I’m sorry I know so little. I’m sorry we all know so little. But that’s kind of the fun, isn’t it?”

 

 

 

Vera Cooper was born in 1928 in Philadelphia, the daughter of Jewish immigrants. She attended Vassar College after being told by her high school science teacher that she would be fine in a career as long as she stayed away from science. She graduated in 1948, the sole astronomy major in her class. She set her sights on Princeton for graduate school but was refused even a course catalogue, as the astrophysics department did not admit women until 1975. She instead earned her master’s degree at Cornell and her PhD at Georgetown.

 

She also raised four children, which she found, she said, “Almost overwhelming.” She took six months off of her academic career at one point to focus on motherhood and called it the worst six months of her life, recalling how she wept every time the Astrophysical Journal arrived at the house.

 

She fought her way to recognition despite the sexism she faced repeatedly. She recalled being invited to a meeting with eminent astrophysicist George Gamow only to be told that they would have to talk in the lobby, as women were not allowed in the offices.

 

Dr. Rubin was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1993. She was considered by many female astronomers to be a “guiding light” in the field, according to Sandra Faber, a staff astronomer at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Risa Wechsler, in her delightful essay on Vera Rubin and Carrie Fisher, wrote, “It is hard to overstate the importance of (Rubin’s) work to our modern understanding of the cosmos—Vera quite literally discovered about 85% of the mass of the universe!”

 

Don’t let anyone keep you down for silly reasons such as who you are. And don’t worry about prizes and fame. The real prize is finding something new out there. —Vera Rubin

           

Dr. Rubin joined the Carnegie Institution in 1965 and stayed there for the remainder of her career. She paved the way for female scientists at Carnegie, recalling how, even after being hired, she had to battle for access to the Institution’s telescope. When she did get there, she discovered that there was no ladies’ restroom, since no woman had ever worked there before. She taped an outline of a skirt to the image of a man on the door of one of the restrooms, turning it into a women’s bathroom.

 

Despite becoming one of the most famous astrophysicists of her generation and a “national treasure” according to Carnegie president Matthew Scott, Dr. Rubin was never awarded the Nobel Prize. Lisa Randall argued in The New York Times that Rubin should have won:

 

The elephant in the room is gender. Dr. Rubin was not alone in having been overlooked for the Nobel. Every major discovery in the Standard Model of particle physics, perhaps the crowning achievement of 20th-century physics, was awarded a Nobel, except one. Chien-Shiung Wu, who showed that physical laws distinguish between left and right, was overlooked, even though two of her male colleagues won for developing the theory behind her work and an even more subtle follow-up symmetry violation later won the prize.

 

Of the 204 Nobel laureates in physics, only two have been women — and the first and best-known, Marie Curie, was included only because her husband, Pierre, insisted that she, too, be awarded for their joint work. Prizes and awards usually require a judgment call, and there will almost always be some degree of controversy. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the Nobel numbers are skewed.

 

The field of physics and indeed science in general still has work to do, and the Nobel Prize committee in particular can take Vera Rubin’s “three basic assumptions in work and life” as excellent guidance:

 

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.

 

If you’re wondering how to become your own trailblazer, here’s Vera’s advice, which could basically be a quick how-to on being a Nasty Woman who breaks down barriers from the inside:

 

Protest every all-male meeting, every all-male department, every all-male platform.

 

In other words, whether you’re working from the inside or the outside, the rules are the same: resist.

 

 

Sources:

“Vera Rubin, Who Confirmed Existence of Dark Matter, Dies at 88,” by Camila Domonoske for npr.org, December 26, 2016

“Why Vera Rubin Deserved a Nobel,” by Lisa Randall for nytimes.com, January 4, 2017

“Vera Rubin, 88, Dies,” by Dennis Overbye for nytimes.com, December 27, 2016

“Vera Rubin,” Wikipedia.org

“Obituary: Vera Rubin Died on December 25,” economist.com

“Vera Rubin Who Confirmed ‘Dark Matter’ Dies,” carnegiescience.edu, December 26, 2016

“The Legacies of Carrie Fisher and Vera Rubin For Women in Science,” by Risa Wechsler for teenvogue.com, January 5, 2017

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