In a year that claimed many lives, famous and otherwise, the world has lost a great scientific mind.
While she has never been a household name, Vera Rubin was a groundbreaking scientist.
Rubin’s work led to the confirmation of dark matter’s existence and blazed a trail for other female scientists.
From a young age, Rubin was fascinated by the science of the universe. This interest propelled her through a degree at Vassar College, where in 1948, she graduated as the sole astronomy major. Rubin next studied at Cornell University after Princeton would not accept a woman into its astronomy program. She finished her Ph.D. in 1954 at Georgetown University, where she remained a professor for the next decade.
Starting in 1965, Rubin worked with colleague Kent Ford at Carnegie’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, studying galactic centers and stars’ orbits around them. During this time, Rubin became the first woman to observe the sky at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory, although she was initially told that she could not use their facilities because they did not have a ladies’ room.
Her major discovery came during the 1970’s, when Rubin and Kent observed that gas and stars travel at the same speed, whether they are near or far from the galactic center. The duo found that the stars were being moved by an invisible mass; in fact, each spiral galaxy has a halo of this invisible mass, or dark matter. Previously, scientists had found clues to support the existence of dark matter, but Rubin’s work finally confirmed it.
Rubin won several awards. In 1981, she was elected to the National Academy of Scientists. Then, in 1993, she received the National Medal of Science, the country’s highest prize. Lastly, in 1996, she was the first women in over 50 years to receive the Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal. Surprisingly, Rubin never received a Nobel Prize despite having made one of the most important discoveries within the field of physics.
Because she was a woman, Rubin faced greater barriers to success in her field than her male colleagues. At every turn, she faced gender discrimination that threatened her access to schools, clubs, and facilities. Her success in overcoming these barriers opened doors for young female scientists. She relentlessly created opportunities for women in science where they hadn’t before existed. Thanks to Vera Rubin’s pioneering research we know more about dark matter, and women in science have an ingenious role model.