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Vera Rubin – Dark Matter Discoverer Passes Away At 88

Pioneering astronomer, Vera Rubin, who fought tooth and nail to stand out in a male dominated field has sadly passed away at the age of 88.

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See also: Exoplanets Explained

Vera Rubin was the daughter of Jewish immigrants and became fascinated with science, physics and astronomy at a very early age. Through hard work, she earned a bachelor’s degree in astronomy at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, which was very rare for a woman to do so. Her grades were so good that she should have gone to Princeton University for graduate studies; only they didn’t have a course for women. Rubin settled for Cornell University, which did have a program for women, and achieved a master’s degree there in 1951.

Throughout the 50’s and 60’s, she worked hard at several colleges and universities but she was always made to feel unwelcome in a stereotypically masculine field; stars were men’s work, afterall. Many that worked, studied and researched with her could openly see that she was extremely bright and naturally gifted in the field of astronomy, but she never received the support she deserved. She did submit several papers, which were heavily scrutinized, even though they were later found to be groundbreaking. She had the full backing of her husband, a renowned scientist himself, but she was always hamstrung and she was denied much of the assistance afforded to her male counterparts. For instance, in 1965 she became the first woman to get viewing time at Palomar Observatory. Although, to be fair, the observatory argued that women weren’t allowed because they didn’t have women’s toilets installed in the building.

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Vera Rubin had invested much time in the field of pulsars, which was relatively new at the time, but her ambitious male counterparts decided they wanted the glory and squeezed her out at every opportunity.

“I decided to pick a problem that I could go observing and make headway on – hopefully, a problem that people would be interested in, but not so interested in that anyone would bother me before I was done.”

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Rubin decided to look at the contents of galaxies and try to work out how many stars were contained within them. Her major breakthrough came here because she saw something that her colleagues had previously overlooked; given the speed at which galaxies rotate, there weren’t even nearly enough stars inside them to stay together under their own gravity, as was previously believed.

She worked with fellow scientist Kent Ford and determined that the stars in the far reaches of spiral-shaped galaxies would spin travel at the same pace. This wasn’t supposed to happen, given that the planets in the outer reaches of our own solar system travel at different speeds. They theorized that if galaxies contained only stars, as previously imagined, then they should have all been thrown out into the abyss many billions of years ago. Only, they weren’t, they were still there. Something must have been holding everything together and this must have had a huge amount of mass. They figured out that the visible mass in the universe only makes up only around 15 percent maximum of the total mass.

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Vera Rubin had discovered Dark Matter because her male counterparts, who’d made her work extremely difficult up until that point, weren’t interested in it. She wasn’t the first to make a theory about dark matter, and she certainly wasn’t alone in her work, but she was the first scientist to spend years of her life devoted to the subject and to find the direct evidence of the existence of dark matter. She mapped 200 galaxies herself and developed a huge understanding of the cosmos. She continued to teach and lecture until her death and she fought for women’s rights in the academic world.

“Vera Rubin influenced generations of astronomers. A great many of us felt she deserved the Nobel Prize for discovering dark matter as much as the 2011 Nobel Prize winners who discovered dark energy. Vera provided incontrovertible evidence for the existence of dark matter, which outnumbers ordinary matter five to one.” San Diego University physicist Brian Keating.

Many believed she should have won a Nobel prize and received more recognition for her work, but Vera was happy she could make a contribution.

“Fame is fleeting. My numbers mean more to me than my name. If astronomers are still using my data years from now, that’s my greatest compliment.”

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1 Comment »

  1. “Although, to be fair”? Palomar used the toilet situation as a tool to reject female astronomers. Vera Rubin taped a skirt onto the door in protest. The toilet is unisex now, an obvious solution that was “overlooked” for decades.

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