Vera Rubin, one of the most important astronomers of the 20th century, died on December 25 in Princeton, NJ at age 88. She played a seminal role in our understanding of dark matter, and should have been awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics — but never was.
This article originally appeared on December 29 2016.
Born in 1928 and raised in Washington DC, Rubin was fascinated with the night sky from an early age. “There was just nothing as interesting in my life as watching the stars every night,” she said in an American Institute of Physics oral interview in 1989. Rubin always knew she’d be an astronomer. She consumed books about space, and chose to attend Vassar College after reading the work of Maria Mitchell, a 19th century astronomy professor at Vassar and the first American female astronomer. (“Shame on you,” Rubin told her interviewer on finding that he hadn’t heard of Mitchell). Rubin earned her Master’s at Cornell, her PhD at Georgetown and went on to study at the Carnegie Institute in Washington alongside astronomer Kent Ford.
Rubin dealt with a lot of crap as a female astronomer. A science teacher initially told her to stay away from the field, she recalled in an interview. After calling her thesis “sloppy”, one of her Cornell advisers said that since she was pregnant, he could present her work for her at the American Astronomical Society meeting — under his name. “I can go,” she said. Since she was the first female astronomer to use the telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, there were no women’s bathrooms, so she picked a bathroom and taped a paper cutout of a woman to it. When she applied to Princeton University for graduate school, she was told, “Princeton does not accept women,” according to the Washington Post.
But still, Rubin managed to be a role model and helpful mentor for those who needed help. “I remember in the 1980’s as a young Assistant Professor at Yale, when I needed to obtain some figures for a book I was writing on dark matter, contacting her out of the blue, and receiving warm encouragement, and the figures, a few days later,” wrote Lawrence M. Krauss in a Scientific American guest blog. And with every card stacked against her, she still kicked major arse. She made observations of galaxies now used as for proof for dark matter’s existence.
Rubin didn’t come up with the dark matter idea; Fritz Zwicky coined the term in 1933 as a theory to explain why the Coma Cluster of galaxies didn’t blow apart, according to an American Museum of Natural History profile. Rubin instead provided compelling evidence for its existence. The laws of physics say that stuff in galaxies should spin slower further from the galactic centre. Rubin’s observations instead showed that galaxies spun at the same speed throughout, meaning that there must be some mass hidden from our telescopes. “The conclusion is inescapable that non-luminous matter exists beyond the optical galaxy,” she wrote in her 1980 paper. Today, we know that dark matter comprises around four-fifths of the universe’s matter.
Keeping in line with all the other crap she dealt with, Rubin died before she had been awarded the Nobel Prize — which, to be clear, she should definitely have won. Almost any undergrad who’s taken an introductory astrophysics course has seen Rubin’s work to motivate their understanding of dark matter. Zwicky would not have won the prize for his efforts, since he died in 1974. It was Rubin’s work that finally convinced most astronomers of dark matter’s existence. And you can’t argue that her work was too theoretical, since the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics contains just about the same amount of evidence to support dark energy’s existence.
The Nobel Prize in Physics remains a fraternity. No woman has won the prize since Maria Goeppert Mayer shared it in 1963, and in 1974, the committee literally skipped over Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her efforts: She was the second author on her paper, but her adviser and another colleague received the prize instead. A quick peek at the other Nobel Prizes’ own analysis of women winners is pathetic. And not to be rude, but couldn’t this year’s Nobel Prize discovery, esoteric and at-present without application according to a New York Times report, have waited a year or two?
Of course, as astronomer Katie Mack tweeted, “It’s good that we honor/admire winners of Nobel Prizes. But important to acknowledge that, as any award, it’s a biased list, missing names.”
Today we mourn Vera Rubin, one of the greatest astrophysicists of the 20th century, who put up with with as much garbage as could be handed to her. Hopefully things change, and I’ll let Katie Mack have the final word:
I'm REALLY looking forward to the day when the life story of a prominent woman in science isn't an epic tale of overcoming sexist obstacles.
— Katie Mack (@AstroKatie) December 27, 2016