An astrophysicist, a working mother and a trailblazer for women in science who discovered evidence of dark matter.
“It never occurred to me that I couldn’t be an astronomer,” Vera Rubin.
Even if you haven’t heard of her, you’ve obviously heard of dark matter. 88-year-old Vera Rubin who died recently was the woman who found evidence of its existence in the 1960s and forever changed the way we look at the universe.
The only astronomy major in her 1948 graduating class at Vassar College, she was rejected from Princeton on the grounds of being a woman and fought sexism all her life. She moved on to Cornell and then to Georgetown University to do her PhD, by then she was already a mother with a second baby on the way, but that didn’t stop Vera Rubin from pursuing her dreams.
In her book, Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters she wrote that, “having a family and a career was very hard, but it’s do-able.” She also wrote that,
I live and work with three basic assumptions.
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’s interest in astronomy began as a young girl and was nurtured by her father, Philip Cooper, an electrical engineer who helped her build a telescope and took her to meetings of amateur astronomers. Rubin’s scientific achievements earned her numerous honours but she still never won the Nobel Prize for her ground breaking work. In fact, no woman has won the prize in five decades.
When she started working at Palomar Observatory in San Diego, California, she was told that she would have a lot of problems because there was no ladies room, so she went back to her room and took out a little piece of paper and cut it into a skirt and went to the bathroom door and stuck it on the men’s figure on the door and said now there was one.
In the late 1960s she worked on spiral galaxies with another astronomer, Kent Ford, taking spectrographs of distant objects, galaxies. It was during these spectrographs that she discovered dark matter. It was one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century because it proved that most of the mass in the universe is not emitting light. Dark matter was first theorized by Fritz Zwicky in the 1930s but until Rubin’s work, had not been proven to exist. Rubin did much of her revolutionary work at Carnegie. The organization’s president calls her a “national treasure.” In recent years, Rubin was reportedly unhappy that stubborn gender issues still continued to pervade her field, although she did open doors to a lot of ambitious women astronomers through her work.