Universe a little darker without Vera Rubin


The end of a dark year got worse with news that a woman whose work fundamentally altered the way we view the universe was gone. Astronomer Vera Rubin died on Christmas Day at age 88.

Rubin’s work was the first to show that everything we see in the night sky — all the stars, planets, glowing gas clouds and even other galaxies — make up only a tiny portion of what’s in the universe. Her discovery of dark matter — which we cannot see directly, although we can detect its gravitational effects — was one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of the late 20th century.

Rubin also helped change astronomy from a completely male-dominated field to one that is more accepting of women and minorities. By simply refusing to accept the limits others tried to place on her, she transformed science.

As a young girl, Rubin was fascinated by the stars she saw outside her bedroom window at night. When she told her high school physics teacher that she had received a scholarship to Vassar College in New York, he told her, “As long as you stay away from science, you should do OK.” She studied astronomy.

Rubin couldn’t pursue a Ph.D. at Princeton because they didn’t accept women into their graduate programs. She attended Georgetown instead. When she asked to attend a talk at the lab where her husband worked, she was told, “Wives aren’t allowed,” even though she was a scientist in her own right. Still, she didn’t give up.

In the mid-1960s, Rubin became the first woman allowed to apply for time on the telescopes at the Palomar Observatory in Southern California. She was sent a proposal form that said, in print, “Due to limited facilities, it is not possible to accept applications from women.” Someone had penciled in the word “usually.”

The “limited facilities” referred to the lack of a women’s bathroom at the telescope. So Rubin cut paper into the shape of a person with a skirt and stuck it over the image of a man on the bathroom door. She told them, “There you go; now you have a ladies’ room.”

In the 1970s, Rubin and fellow astronomer Kent Ford studied the motions of stars in galaxies as the stars orbited the galactic centers. She fully expected to find that stars in the outer reaches of a galaxy orbited slower than those that move closer to the center. After all, that’s how it works in the solar system — as you move out away from the Sun, each planet moves slower than the ones closer to the Sun. That’s because nearly all the mass in the solar system is concentrated at its center, in the Sun.

Unlike what happens in the solar system, Rubin and Ford found that the stars in the outer reaches of galaxies moved at the same speed as the stars closer to the center. The only way to explain this was if there were large amounts of invisible “dark” matter spread throughout the galaxy, including in the outer regions where few stars are visible.

The stars are but the visible tip of the much larger, invisible, dark iceberg that is the universe. Astronomers have spent decades trying to figure out exactly what this dark matter is — and there’s still no definitive answer.

Given the importance of her work, many expected Rubin to be awarded a Nobel Prize in physics. But she never was, perhaps a testament to the Nobel Committee’s bias against women. Only two women have ever received a Nobel in physics, the most recent more than 50 years ago. One writer suggested that maybe, like the dark matter she studied, Rubin herself was invisible to the committee.

Vera Rubin was a tireless advocate for women in science. She pushed conference organizers to include more women speakers. She mentored many younger women scientists and inspired many more, including me. I once interviewed her. It was one of those rare times when someone I admired lived up to my expectations.

Rubin once said, “Don’t shoot for the stars, we already know what’s there. Shoot for the space in between because that’s where the real mystery lies.”

The universe is a little darker now that she’s gone.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

To commemorate that 20th anniversary of September 11, Gloss (www.instagram.com/gloss), the team behind the world’s largest arts and media company, is…

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