Vera Rubin – Astronomer

I’m quite sad about putting up this particular card. I’d created it some time ago and had hoped to reach out to Professor Rubin for her thoughts and feedback before publishing it.

Sadly, Vera Rubin passed away on December 25, 2016 at the age of 88.

Dr. Vera Rubin. Astrophysicist and advocate for women in science.
Dr. Vera Rubin. Astrophysicist and advocate for women in science.

Dr. Rubin was most notable, at large, for measuring and confirming that the spin rates of galaxies are much higher than should be possible given their known/estimated mass. Like putting a weight on a thread, you know you can only swing it so fast before the thread will break. Except the galaxies were spinning way faster than gravity (like the thread) should have been able to hold them together! One theory that sprung from these observations was that there simply must be a lot more mass to cause the increased gravity needed to hold galaxies together. And if you can’t see something, a good way of describing it is “dark”, hence Dark Matter.

Back of the HubbleGum Card for Vera Rubin. Astrophysicist and advocate for women in science.
Back of the HubbleGum Card for Vera Rubin. Astrophysicist and advocate for women in science.

Now, it is my understanding (and I may be way off base on this) that Dr. Rubin herself did not necessarily fully buy into the theory of Dark Matter. I thought that, while her discoveries influenced and expanded the theory of Dark Matter, she considered that it was possible that there were other laws of nature that acted on the scale of galaxies, that we had not yet discovered. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong. (Incidentally, I do realize that there are a lot of different observations that appear to point to the existence of Dark Matter. I’m just asking about Dr. Rubin’s opinion here.)

The one thing that her discovery definitely did do for her: It raised her stature in the academic/scientific community. Recognizing her own struggles in a male dominated field, she used her renown to advocate strongly for women in science.

Just a couple of quotes to finish off…

From Dr. Rubin:

“I live and work with three basic assumptions,” Rubin once wrote:

“1) There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman.

“2) Worldwide, half of all brains are in women.

“3) We 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.”

and from Astrophysicist, Katie Mack upon hearing some of the reporting on the death of Vera Rubin…

Card Text

Front Quote:

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

Back Text:

Vera Rubin (1928 – 2016)
Vera Rubin’s father helped his 10 year old daughter build her first telescope in 1938. This helped set her on the path to become the first woman to use the equipment in the Palomar Observatory in 1965, which housed the world’s largest optical telescope at that time.

Based on what we know about orbits, stars at the edges of galaxies were expected to move slower than those closer to the center. If they moved too quickly, they should break out of the gravitational pull of the galaxy.
Dr. Rubin’s observations, using an advanced spectrometer created by Kent Ford, showed that stars at the edges of galaxies moved more quickly than expected. This meant that either there was much more mass in a galaxy than we were detecting (in the form of undetected “dark matter”) or that gravity somehow works differently on the galactic scale.

And since the Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously, regrettably,  I had to change the text .

If this card might plant a seed in the mind of one young girl that she could follow in Vera Rubin’s footsteps, then I hope that would be a fitting tribute to Dr. Rubin.

As always, place your vote here if you’d like to see this in the first set of HubbleGum Cards.

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Your comments and feedback are welcome below.

Photo of Vera Rubin copyright By NASA – These pictures of posed groups from the NASA Sponsors Women in Astronomy and Space Science 2009 Conference, Public Domain, Link