On Christmas Day, the scientific community lost one of their most innovative members. Vera Rubin, a pioneering astronomer, passed away at the age of 88. As a woman who participated in the scientific community since the 1940s, Vera Rubin faced a great deal of discrimination. However, she powered through sexist colleagues and teachers to make some major discoveries. She is credited with changing the way astronomers viewed the universe.
A Look at Rubin’s Major Contributions to Astronomy
Rubin was born right at the start of the great depression in 1928. From an early age, she was interested in astronomy, and Rubin spent many nights staring out her window at the stars. As a young woman, Rubin decided to attend Vassar College because of Maria Mitchell, one of the first female astronomers, worked there.
At the time, few women went to college, and almost no women studied math or science. When she was first applying for school, Rubin’s advisors told her to just become an astronomical artist instead of focusing on actual astronomy. In 1948, Rubin was turned away from Princeton because women were not allowed to participate in the graduate astronomy program, so she ended up going to Cornell instead.
Even as a graduate student, Rubin was already challenging preconceived notions about the galaxy. In her thesis, Rubin argued that the flow of galaxies seemed to rotate around undefined high-gravity centers instead of just expanding outwards. Throughout the 1950s, Rubin worked to get her doctorate degree while raising her young children.
When asked what her biggest challenge as a woman scientist was, Rubin replied that it was simply “Child care.” Not only did Rubin have to struggle to find time for her work, but her efforts were hampered by male colleagues who refused to take her seriously. She had to fight just to get an appointment for using the telescopes at the Mount Palomar Observatory because the male-only facility thought women would be a distraction.
In the next few decades, Rubin found a research partner, Kent Ford, and the two focused on confirming her theories of galaxy rotation. Rubin noticed that galaxy rotational speed seemed unusually quick if one only took into account the observable mass. Ford and Rubin undertook extensive calculations to show that galaxies must contain at least ten times as much mass as the mass of the visible stars.
This unseen mass seemed to hold galaxies together as tight rotational areas instead of allowing them to expand randomly through the universe. Rubin’s extensive data on star movement and complicated mathematical formulas was mostly responsible for proving the theory of dark matter that is now believed by most astronomers. In modern times, scientists believe that almost one-third of the universe may be made up of this mass and energy that is not visible on the normal spectrum.
Despite her groundbreaking discoveries, Rubin was never given a Nobel Prize. She fought against gender biases her entire life, but her contributions are still regularly overlooked. In her later years, Rubin regularly criticized astronomers, physicists, and mathematicians for refusing to recognize or honor the many women like her who made huge contributions in her field.
Rubin Paved the Way for Women in Academia
Rubin’s death maybe a loss for the academic community, but her contributions are still influential today. Her work proved to many that women could excel at researching math and science. Though she was passed over for some awards, Rubin achieved enough notoriety to convince many other young women to follow their dreams. Rubin encouraged women interested in science to
“go ahead, try not to let anything discourage them, try not to quit.”
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