Rediscover STEAM
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Rediscover STEAM

Vera Rubin, Astronomer & Dark Matter Researcher

Vera Rubin in the 1970s

Vera Cooper Rubin was born on July 23th, 1928 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was the youngest of electrical engineer Philip Cooper’s two daughters. Their family moved to Washington D.C, in 1938 and it was there that Vera started developing an interest in astronomy. Her father supported Vera’s passion by accompanying her to amateur astronomy meetings and helping her construct her first homemade telescope when she was 14. (Kristine Larsen, 2009) She attended Vassar College and graduated with a BA degree in Astronomy in 1948. She then attempted to enroll in Princeton but was not accepted as women were not allowed to be a part of the graduate astronomy program until 1975. Thereafter, she enrolled at Cornell University for her M.A., where she met her future husband, Robert Rubin.

Her master’s thesis was a source of much controversy. She was one of the first scientists who expressed interest in researching the possibility of large-scale motions of galaxies as distinct from the conventional Hubble expansion. Her line of argument was that galaxies could be rotating around centers that were not known yet instead of merely expanding outwards. (Vera Rubin, 1989) This thesis was rejected by both Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal at the time. Although Vera later conceded that the available data had been extremely limited, her thesis was key to Gerald de Vaucouleur’s claim for the existence of Local Superclusters. A Local Supercluster is a mass concentration of galaxies containing the Virgo Cluster and Local group, which in turn contains our very own Milky way galaxy as well as the Andromeda galaxy.

Before she conducted her doctoral thesis at Georgetown University in 1954, she worked at the Naval Research Laboratory and the U.S. Naval Observatory to gain some hands-on experience. Vera went on to conduct her doctoral work under advisor George Gamow and wrote her thesis on the clustering of galaxies. It was largely ignored by the scientific community and it only became a topic of interest a few decades later.

Once she graduated, she taught at Montgomery County Junior College and also worked at Georgetown University as an astronomy research assistant. She was finally promoted to junior professor in 1962. Notably, she was the first woman allowed to utilize the instruments at the Mount Palomar Observatory. She won a research position at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and worked there for the rest of her career. (Scientific Women, 2020)

Vera Rubin’s work measuring the rotation curves of 21 galaxies

Vera went on to collaborate with the gifted instrument designer Kent Ford and used his special spectrograph that utilized the image tube for recording the spectroscopic signatures of minuscule parts of enormous, distant galaxies. An image tube was a revolutionary instrument that allowed telescopes to observe objects that were many times fainter than those previously studied. (Earth & Planets Laboratory, 2013) With Ford’s help, she discovered a phenomenon that later came to be known as the ‘Rubin-Ford Effect’. There appeared to be a visible difference in the magnitude of the Universe’s expansion depending on the direction of the expansion referred, on the scale of 100 million light-years, which directly conflicted with Hubble’s flow that assumed the Universe was homogeneous throughout. (Oxford Reference, 2020)

Rubin and Ford shifted their focus to the rotational curves of spiral galaxies and made a startling discovery. The motion of distant spiral galaxies did not reduce with distance, on the contrary, it remained high. This proof verified the previously theoretical work of the astronomer Fritz Zwicky, who analysed the Doppler velocities and realised that galaxies in a cluster were moving so fast that they needed something with enormous mass to bind them together (Steven Soter and Neil deGrasse Tyson, 2000). Hence, with her new-found evidence, Rubin concluded that there must be a large quantity of invisible mass present throughout the entire galaxy, which was dubbed dark matter. (Women in Aviation and Space History, 2020) Rubin’s further analysis of the spectra of over 200 galaxies had led her to the conclusion that they all contain enormous quantities of dark matter. She was amazed at the wide breadth of possibilities her research had opened up. In her words: “We have peered into a new world, and have seen that it is more mysterious and more complex than we had imagined. Still, more mysteries of the universe remain hidden. Their discovery awaits the adventurous scientists of the future. I like it this way.” (National Science Foundation, 2020)

Vera Rubin has been tremendously honored for her work and career. She received the Presidential National Medal of Science in 1993, the Dickson Prize in Science from Carnegie-Mellon University in 1994, and the Russell Lectureship Prize of the American Astronomical Society in the same year. She also received the James Craig Watson Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 2004.

Vera Rubin died in 2016 of natural causes, at the age of 88. However, her contributions to the field of astronomy and her efforts in paving the way for future women astronomers will live on forever.

by Raina Talwar Bhatia

References

Bauer, P. (2020). Vera Rubin. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Vera-Rubin

Earth & Planets Laboratory. (2013, November 4). Kent Ford & Vera Rubin’s image tube spectrograph named in Smithsonian’s “101 objects that made America”. https://dtm.carnegiescience.edu/news/kent-ford-vera-rubins-image-tube-spectrograph-named-smithsonians-101-objects-made-america

Larsen, K. (2009, February). Vera Cooper Rubin. Jewish Women’s Archive. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/rubin-vera-cooper

National Science Foundation. (2020). The national medal of science 50th anniversary. NSF — National Science Foundation.

Oxford Reference. (2020). Rubin–Ford effect. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100432262

Rubin, V. (1989). ORAL HISTORIES Vera Rubin. Interview by A. Lightman. American Institute for Physics.

Scientific Women. (2020). Vera RUBIN. https://scientificwomen.net/women/rubin-vera-86

Soter and deGrasse, S., & Tyson, N. D. (2000). Franz Zwicky: Underrecognized astronomer | AMNH. American Museum of Natural History. https://www.amnh.org/learn-teach/curriculum-collections/cosmic-horizons-book/franz-zwicky

Women in aviation and space history. (2020). Women in aviation and space history — Smithsonian national air and space Museum. National Air and Space Museum |. https://airandspace.si.edu/explore-and-learn/topics/women-in-aviation/rubin.cfm

Penoyre, Zephyr. (2016). How one person discovered the majority of the unvierse — The work of Vera Rubin. astrobites. https://astrobites.org/2016/12/27/how-one-person-discovered-the-majority-of-the-universe-the-work-of-vera-rubin/

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