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Five Things to Know About Boundary-Breaking Astronomer Vera Rubin

Her observations confirmed the theory of dark matter, and her activism helped open science to more women

Vera Rubin makes observations through the Flagstaff Telescope. (Smithsonian Institution )
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Decades ago, a little girl looked out her window, peering up at the stars. “I would prefer to stay up and watch the stars than sleep,” Vera Rubin recalled years later. That little girl become an astronomer whose observations of dark matter changed the course of science. ​Rubin died on December 25 at age 88, and tributes to the groundbreaking scientist are pouring in. Here are five things to know about her life and pioneering legacy:

She found inspiration in some of science’s greatest women

When Rubin entered college in 1945, women still weren’t exactly welcome in the sciences. Though they did break into astronomy before Rubin, their work was often confined to all-female spaces and given little credit or credence by their male colleagues. However, some women still pushed through.

One of them was Maria Mitchell, a 19th-century astronomer who discovered a comet in the 1840s and became one of Vassar College’s first professors hired. When Rubin learned about Mitchell, she decided to go to Vassar. Because of Mitchell, she recalled, "I knew there was a school where women could study astronomy. So...it never occurred to me that I couldn't be an astronomer.”

Despite her confidence, Rubin did encounter sexism throughout her lifetime. Her high school science teacher told her that as long as she stayed away from science, she’d be fine. When she transferred to a different program after marrying, for example, an advisor wrote “Damn you women” on her letter of withdrawal. Male professors refused to send her course catalogs for schools closed to women, and she often worked in all-male environments. “It takes an enormous self-esteem to listen to things like that and not be demolished,” she recalled.

She was the first woman to legally use a famous telescope

In Rubin’s day, telescope time at Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California wasn’t just a chance to peer at the stars—it was an opportunity to be at the forefront of astronomical research. Observations from the telescopes at Palomar helped in the discovery of everything from quasar shifts to the explosions of supernovae. But although the observatory was on the forefront of astronomical research, it was behind the times in one way: Women were prohibited from using the instruments there.

As Rubin said in an interview years later, the excuse given to women was that there were no appropriate restroom facilities. The policy, however, was not unusual at the time: Though women were becoming more welcome in the sciences, they had long been discouraged from doing work in the traditionally all-male spaces of the field. (Other scientists, like Marie Tharp, were forbidden from doing research at sea and on land in many locations through at least the 1960s.)

But Rubin’s reputation preceded her, and she was invited to become the first woman to legally put her hands on Palomar’s telescopes in 1963. She accepted, and even pasted a skirt on the stick figure of a man on the observatory’s only bathroom. “I’d like to think that [I was invited to Palomar] because of the research,” Rubin said later. “I clearly had demonstrated that I knew how to use a telescope.”

Her discovery turned science on its head

Using her observations from the Palomar telescope and elsewhere, Rubin began to specialize in how galaxies rotate. But it took more than a decade for her to make her most electrifying discovery. She was working with a colleague in the 1970s when she discovered something weird: Telescopic observations that seemed to show the Andromeda Galaxy was spinning differently than expected. Two years and hundreds of observations and calculations later, she realized what she was looking at: evidence of dark matter.

The concept had already existed since the 1930s, when it was suggested by physics giant Fritz Zwicky. But, as Sarah Scoles writes for Astronomy, nobody had ever proven it before. Rubin realized that her images showed something that couldn’t be directly seen—a weird material that doesn’t emit energy or light. The galaxies Rubin observed should have moved faster at the center than at the edges because of the laws of gravity. But the stars on the outside were traveling at the same velocity as the stars within, suggesting there was some kind of unseen matter acting on them.

Today, it's thought that a full 23 percent of the universe is dark matter, and another 73 percent is dark energy. The concept shook up both astronomy and physics, forcing scientists to revise the basic assumptions underlying their work. Researchers are still working to tease out the mysteries of matter and energy that can’t be seen or easily studied, with the help of advanced satellite telescopes and Rubin’s groundbreaking work.

She helped break up a scientific boys club

Rubin never shied away from controversy and often used her scientific platform to challenge sexism in the field. One of her targets was the Cosmos Club, an exclusive social club for intellectual luminaries in Washington, D.C. that, at the time, was open only to men. Rubin fought the club’s exclusive policies for years, and her insistence that women be allowed at meetings held at the club was apparently so infuriating to two members that they descended into “a kicking fight where blood was drawn at the shin.”

She wasn’t alone: Over the years, club members began to agitate for women’s admission to the club. Only in 1973 did the club decide to allow women to enter through the front door, but it eventually took a lawsuit and the threat of public hearings for the club to change its policies in 1988.

Though she was not one of the first group of women admitted to the club, she was eventually honored there with a Cosmos Club Award a decade after it allowed women to join.

She never got her Nobel

Though Rubin was one of the most famous figures in the fields of astronomy and physics, she never received the highest scientific honor for her work: a Nobel Prize. As astronomer Emily Levesque told Rachel Feltman for The Washington Post, the prize was designed to recognize the most important discovery in physics. “If dark matter doesn’t fit that description,” she said, “I don’t know what does.”

Now Rubin is dead, and her Nobel prize snub will go down in the annals of missed opportunities to recognize some of science’s greatest women. As a woman who was denied the prize, she’s in good company—joined by women like Rosalind Franklin, whose discarded discovery of the structure of DNA later turned into a Nobel Prize for James Watson and Francis Crick, and Esther Lederberg, whose husband won the Nobel Prize in medicine for a discovery she made.

Rubin may never have gotten her Nobel, but she always put mentorship and scientific progress ahead of personal gain. “Fame is fleeting,” she said in a 1990 interview with Discover. “My numbers mean more to me than my name.” Even so, it's a name the world would do well to remember for generations to come.

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