Vera Rubin

Vera Rubin was an American astronomer whose work on galaxy rotation rates provided evidence for the existence of dark matter.

Vera Rubin — Sci-Illustrate Stories

Featuring artwork & words by Dr. Eleonora Adami, Sci-Illustrate Stories. Set in motion by Dr. Radhika Patnala.

Early years and academic formation

Vera Florence Cooper was born in Philadephia, to a family of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, and was a very curious child. At the age of 10, she started developing a fascination for the night sky: with the help of her father she built a crude telescope out of cardboard and began observing meteors, wondering why and how stars move across the sky.

Inspired by Maria Mitchell, the first female astronomer in the US, Vera decided to enrol for undergraduate studies at the all-women Vassar College, where Mitchell had been a professor between 1865–88.

Vera had an excellent record and was part of PhiBetaKappa, the oldest academic honour society in US; In 1948, she was the only student who earned a bachelor’s degree in astronomy.

After that, she attempted to enrol into Princeton’s graduate program, but was turned down based on gender issues, as the program did not accept women at that time (and continued not to for 27 more years. *Funny how Princeton awarded Rubin an honorary degree later in her life in 2005). She then decided to enrol at Cornell, where Robert Joshua Rubin, who became her husband, was also studying, and earned her master’s degree in 1951.

A young Vera Rubin. Archives & Special Collections, Vassar College Library ©

Vera was 23 years old and pregnant when she began her doctoral studies at the Georgetown University in Washington DC, which was the only university who offered a PhD program in astronomy at the time. She completed her thesis in 1954, with some surprising findings, whose importance was not recognised until much later.

“Science is competitive, aggressive, demanding. It is also imaginative, inspiring, uplifting.”

She had demonstrated that the distribution of galaxies in space is not random as they tend to form clusters, clumping together.

After obtaining her PhD, Vera started navigating the academic system and held various positions at Georgetown university, to then accept a staff member position at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism in 1965. There, she started collaborating with Kent Ford and conducted groundbreaking work on galaxy dynamics and dark matter.

How do you discover something so intangible as dark matter?

In the 1970s Vera was studying galaxy rotation and showed that the rotation curves of spiral galaxies, such as the bright and close-to-us Andromeda, were flat. Stars near the centre of the galaxy were orbiting around it at the same speed as stars found in the outskirts. This was in striking contradiction with the Newtonian theory of gravitation, according to which the speed of distant stars declines as a result of a lowered gravity pull: eg. in our solar system, Mercury orbits around the Sun much faster than, for example, Jupiter does.

The only way to explain the data was that the mass of galaxies must extend beyond the visible, so that what we think is distant is not that distant after all. This halo of mass that surrounds the galaxies is what we now know as dark matter. The existence of this “excess mass” was first theorised in 1933 by F. Zwicky, who saw that galaxies in clusters moved much faster than what would be predicted taking into account their — visible — mass.

Indeed, Vera also noticed that some galaxies rotate so fast that they should actually fly apart. The fact they do not was taken as a further hint that a large unseen mass must be holding them together.This data was confirmed by radio astronomers, the discovery of the cosmic microwave background, and images of gravitational lensing and we now know that dark matter, which neither emits nor absorbs light, makes up 85% of the mass-density of the Universe. In a way, it’s what air is to us terrestrial animals: we need it, we can’t see it but we definitely feel it is there.Vera’s accomplishments were recognised by numerous honours and she was considered deserving of the Nobel Prize.

“We have peered into a new world,” she said, “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.”

Carnegie Institution ©


Vera died recently, in 2016, and has been a very influential scientist for her pioneering scientific contributions who left a profound mark, or influence, also on a personal level on many generations of mentees. She experienced profound sexism in academia in her youth and always tried to encourage women to be noticed, speak-up, apply for faculty jobs. She pressed for equal representation of men and women scientists at conferences, much earlier than the term “manel” (all men panel) came into use.

As Vera liked to say, “Worldwide, half of all brains are in women.”

1928 — Born in Philadelphia
1948 — Bachelor’s degree in Astronomy from Vassar College
1951 — Earns Master’s Degree from Cornell
1954 — Concludes PhD at Georgetown University
1965 — Takes on research position at Carnegie Institution’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism
2016 — Dies in Princeton

REFs / If you’d like to know more

About the author and artist


Content editor and contributing artist
Women in Science, Sci-Illustrate Stories

Eleonora is a proud descendant of ancient Romans. Besides that, she is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Duke-NUS in Singapore, working in the cardiovascular and metabolic diseases area. She has a biotechnology (BSc) and functional genomics (MSc) background, and has obtained her PhD in molecular biology and genetics in Germany before going to the far east.

Eleonora thinks of herself as a carrier pigeon, always on the go, trying to find new adventures and challenges. Ok, maybe pigeons are not very adventurous, but they were once useful to deliver important messages. One of the messages she likes to bring across is that we need more art in scientific practices. Creative thinking benefits both disciplines.
A passion for illustration has always accompanied her and percolates in her scientific work. She started the collaboration with the Sci-Illustrate team after attending their course on scientific illustration.

About this series:

Not enough can be said about the amazing Women in Science who did and continue to do their part in moving the world forward.

Every month, through the artwork & words of the Sci-Illustrate team, we will bring to you profiles of women who touched our hearts (and brains) with their scientific works, and of many more who currently hold the flag high in their own fields!

-Dr. Radhika Patnala, Series Director



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Passion for science and art coming together in beautiful harmony to tell stories that inspire us