The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Remembering Vera Rubin: The Trailblazing Astrophysicist Who Confirmed the Existence of Dark Matter and Paved the Way for Modern Women in Science

In his insightful reflection on the crucial difference between talent and genius, Schopenhauer likened talent to a marksman who hits a target others cannot hit, and genius to a marksman who hits a target others cannot see. Among humanity’s rare genius-seers was pioneering astrophysicist Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928–December 25, 2016) — a coruscating intellect animated by a sinewy tenacity, who overcame towering cultural odds by the sheer force of her unbridled curiosity and rigorous devotion to science. In confirming the existence of dark matter, Rubin revolutionized our understanding of the universe, paved the way for modern women in science, and recalibrated the stilted norms of her profession.

Rubin fell in love with the night sky as a young girl, but knew no astronomer, living or dead, to hold as a role model. Eventually, she came upon a children’s book about 19th-century trailblazer Maria Mitchell — America’s first professional female astronomer and the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences — whose story reframed Rubin’s landscape of possibility and emboldened her to pursue stargazing as a vocation rather than a hobby. “It never occurred to me that I couldn’t be an astronomer,” she told Alan Lightman many years later in their wonderful 1990 conversation.

Vera Rubin as an undergraduate at Vassar, 1940s
Vera Rubin as an undergraduate at Vassar, 1940s

Rubin received a scholarship to Vassar, where Maria Mitchell had taught the first class of women astronomers as the first woman on the faculty nearly a century earlier. “As long as you stay away from science, you should do okay,” her chauvinist high school physics teacher counseled her upon receiving the admission news. Mercifully, she didn’t heed the unsubtle message — driven by the same tenacious obsessiveness that underlined her groundbreaking discoveries, she plunged straight into science and graduated from Vassar in 1948 as the only astronomy major in her class. Rejected from Princeton’s graduate program, which only admitted men, Rubin instead obtained her master’s degree from Cornell and Georgetown while nursing one child and pregnant with her second. (She would go on to raise four children, all of whom would become scientists.)

In her work on spectroscopy, Rubin drew on the revolutionary discoveries of the Harvard computers — the unheralded team of 19th-century women astronomers who classified stellar spectra decades before women were able to vote. In 1965, she broke a colossal glass ceiling by becoming the first woman to observe at the Palomar Observatory, home to the world’s most powerful telescopes at the time. She went on to do pioneering work on galaxy rotation, based on which she confirmed the existence of dark matter — a cornerstone of our modern understanding of the cosmos.

Vera Rubin with her "measuring engine" used to examine photographic plates, 1974
Vera Rubin with her “measuring engine” used to examine photographic plates, 1974

For decades, Rubin remained a tireless champion of science as a pillar of society. “We need senators who have studied physics and representatives who understand ecology,” she asserted in her electrifying 1996 Berkeley commencement address — a remark of chilling timeliness and urgency today.

That Rubin died without her Nobel Prize is nothing short of a travesty, bespeaking the flawed cultural machinery by which such honors are meted out. But there is higher-order consolation in the wise words of astrophysicist Janna Levin, whose own career was built on the path Rubin paved:

Scientists do not devote their lives to the sometimes lonely, agonizing, toilsome investigation of an austere universe because they want a prize.

In the preface to Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters (public library) — Rubin’s anthology of essays, papers, and speeches spanning 36 years, her commencement address among them — she addresses one of the most central and most misunderstood principles of science: that the power of not-knowing is as essential to science as it is to art and that ignorance, rather than hindering knowledge, is the springboard for it. Rubin writes:

Scientists too seldom stress the enormity of our ignorance. Virtually everything we know about galaxies we have learned during the last 100 years… But what are the questions for future astronomers? What questions will astronomers be asking of the universe 100 years from now? A thousand years from now?

The questions easiest to enumerate, Rubin points out, are those identified but unanswered by the era — questions about the precise rate of expansion of the universe, the amount of mass it contains, the nature of dark matter, and the potential for life on other planets. But the more interesting questions, she suggests, are those “we barely know enough to ask” — among them, the possibility of other universes and the question of how the detection of gravitational waves, merely a hypothetical feat at the time of her writing, would change our understanding of the cosmos. (We’ve only just answered the latter, two decades later; as Rubin anticipated, the answer has profoundly altered our understanding of the universe.)

Echoing her formative role model — “The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us,” Maria Mitchell had marveled in her diary more than a century earlier — Rubin writes:

As we peer into the universe we are peering into our past, but our “eyes” are weak and we have not yet seen to great distances. No one promised that we should live in the era that would unravel the mysteries of the cosmos. The edge of the universe is far beyond our grasp. Like Columbus, perhaps like the Vikings, we have peered into a new world 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.

For a richer taste of Rubin’s genius and her extraordinary life-story, see her conversation with Alan Lightman about dark matter, women in science, and our never-ending quest to know the universe.

Published December 28, 2016




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