In Brief
  • Vera Rubin was a pioneer in the field of astrophysics who led the way for females in the field by discovering evidence to further confirm the existence of dark matter.
  • Rubin was the recipient of many awards and accolades throughout her life, including the National Medal of Science. Her story will continue to inspire future generations of females in the sciences.

A Cosmic Luminary

One of the great scientific minds of the 21st century, Vera Rubin, passed away at the age of 88. She, along with Kent Ford, were credited with the discovery of evidence for dark matter—which until today remains as one of the universe’s most mysterious substances.

In the late 1960s, Rubin was working on the behavior of spiral galaxies when she noticed certain peculiarities. As she trained her eye on the Andromeda galaxy, she saw that stars on the outskirts of galaxies were moving just as quickly as those in the middle. This defied the then-accepted theoretical predictions; the stars further out the center should have been moving slower. Given that the stars in the Andromeda were hurtling through space at such speeds, the galaxy should have been flying apart. Thinking this was just a fluke, she looked at other galaxies, but the same phenomenon was observed.

This led Rubin to theorize alternatives to the standard Newtonian model. It was either Newton’s gravitation laws failed at the scale of the galaxies, or a huge amount of invisible mass was holding the galaxies together. This unseen substance, by Rubin’s calculations, outnumbered the visible components of galaxies ten-to-one and has since been called dark matter.

Vassar College Library
Vassar College Library

Lone, Bright Star

Science has always been a predominantly male field, especially astronomy during Rubin’s time. She was the only astronomy major to graduate Vassar in 1948 and was subsequently rejected by Princeton simply because the university did not allow women into its graduate astronomy program. In 1965, she was the first woman allowed use to the facilities at the Palomar Observatory.

Since then she has received multiple awards in recognition of her pioneering work, being elected to the National Academy of Sciences, awarded the National Medal of Science in 1993, and conferred the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1996—the first woman since to receive the honor since 1828.

Rubin also strongly advocated for women to start getting into the sciences, believing that there was no problem that can be solved my a man that a woman couldn’t. She acknowledged the discrepancy in opportunities, saying “[w]e all need permission to do science, but, for reasons that are deeply ingrained in history, this permission is more often given to men than to women.”

Carrying on Her Legacy

Most of the astronomical community today accept dark matter, with many experiments detecting the supposed particles through means other than gravity. Those who don’t buy it, on the other hand, are pushing for modifications in accepted models — a stance which Rubin herself said she would have preferred.

In her book’s preface, she wrote, “[w]e 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.”

Vera Rubin’s legacy will live on in her work. May she rest in peace.