Vera Rubin, Astrophysicist Who Cinched Evidence for Dark Matter, Dead At 88

Rubin’s research was slow to find acceptance and she also faced active hostility, mainly because of her having been a woman in a male-dominated field.

Vera Rubin. Credit: NSF

Vera Rubin. Credit: NSF

Among the many women who have made tremendous contributions to the field of physics but were never awarded the Nobel Prize, perhaps the most popular was Vera Rubin (née Cooper). Rubin was a pioneering astrophysicist. Her work in the 1970s offered the strongest evidence yet for the existence of dark matter – the substance that had dominated every astrophysicist’s imagination for half a century until then. She worked on galaxies till her death on December 25, 2016. She had been suffering from dementia.

Rubin had been a passionate student of science since when she was a kid. Her electrical-engineer father bought her her first telescope and took her to amateur astronomy meetings. Her enthusiasm and deep interest in astronomy stuck, aided by her easy access to the night sky outside her bedroom window. But what was poised to be a wonderful adventure was, for Rubin, a ride riddled with gender discrimination.

She idolised the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who had taught at Vassar College, New York, and she figured that was where she had to go. After she finished, she decided to enrol at Princeton University for her graduate’s degree but couldn’t because the university didn’t start admitting female students into its astronomy program until 1975. She eventually went to Cornell University, where she studied under Philip Morrison, Richard Feynman and Hans Bethe. She graduated in 1948 (when she married Robert Rubin) and then went on to do her PhD at Georgetown University.

Her research at both Cornell and Georgetown had been controversial. Rubin focused on the rotation of galaxies. According to Isaac Newton’s laws of physics, the stars on the outer edges of a galaxy would have to revolve much slower than the ones at the centre. But she found that stars throughout a galaxy revolved at the same speed – an anomaly dubbed the galaxy rotation problem. In her efforts to resolve this problem, Rubin was able to find compelling evidence to support the existence of dark matter, a mysterious substance that must be holding all the stars together instead of letting them be flung away, like the seats on the rim of a carousel.

However, her research was not accepted at the time. A major hindrance was her gender: she faced active hostility, especially since she was also a mother during her research years. Throughout her career, Rubin actively spoke out against gender discrimination. She was deeply saddened by the fact that, even when her daughter completed her doctorate, she was the only woman in her batch to do so. She had a lot to say for women in the sciences and her own experience.

Rubin continued working on stars and galaxies throughout her life, studying over 200 of the latter. Most recently, she had been studying the motion of stars in the outer edges of the AndromedaWhile she won plenty of awards – including the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1996, only the second woman after Caroline Herschel in 1828 – she never received the Nobel Prize. For this flagrant oversight as well as for repeatedly recognising the work of male astronomers, the Nobel Committee has faced a lot of flak. So far, only two women have won in the physics prize: Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963 and Marie Curie in 1903.

Her granddaughter, the poetess Elyria Rose Little, wrote a poem for Rubin on the day of her passing aptly titled M31 – the Messier catalogue’s designation for the Andromeda galaxy.

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