Vera Rubin: The Brilliant Astrophysicist Who Helped Prove Dark Matter’s Existence

Vera Rubin

Vera Rubin, nee Cooper, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1928. After moving with her family to Washington, D.C. in 1938, her love of astronomy grew as she was “entranced” by the beauty of the cosmos.

Being inspired by Maria Mitchell, the first nationally known woman astronomer, Rubin went to Mitchell’s alma mater, Vassar College. She earned her B.A. in astronomy in 1948, and attempted to get into the graduate program at Princeton, but received no reply as no women were allowed to attend the prestigious college until 1975.

Heading off to Cornell University, another Ivy League school with less discriminatory practices, she studied both physics and quantum physics. In her M.A. thesis, she stated that galaxies might be rotating around a center instead of moving outwards. At the time, this was controversial, as a singular point of rotation that kept things in line wasn’t suggested by the Big Bang Theory, and seemed highly preposterous. Both the Astronomical Journal and Astrophysical Journal rejected the idea behind her thesis. Years later, Rubin was proven right, and the two publications that rejected her theories presumably ate their shorts.

Moving on to her doctoral work at Georgetown University, she was introduced to astrophysicist George Gamow through her husband’s co-worker. At the time, Gamow was working at George Washington University, and Rubin became his adviser even though she was still earning her Ph.D. in astronomy at Georgetown. The two could only really talk in the lobby of the Applied Physics Laboratory at George Washington University because women were not allowed in the offices, another sign of the times, and the struggles women scientists had to endure to keep moving on in the field of their choice. Completing her dissertation in 1954 under Gamow’s assistance, she concluded that galaxies clumped together instead of being randomly spread out throughout the universe. This idea was put on the scientific back-burner and not actually pursued for another 20-some years.

Vera Rubin

Rubin went through various academically-inclined positions from the early 1950’s to the mid 1960’s, becoming the first woman permitted to observe at the Palomar Observatory. she joined the Carnegie Institute as a staff member in the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. This was where the game-changing accomplishment for Rubin took place, cementing her brilliant mind in the history of astrophysicists. Meeting Kent Ford, the man with whom she’d eventually further prove the existence of Dark Matter with, the two started examining nearby galaxies, starting with the  Andromeda Galaxy. The two scientists were studying the rotation of the galaxy, looking for proof of the singular-point rotational explanation that she proposed in her M.A. thesis years before.

When it comes to a galaxy rotating, there were predictions on how galaxies moved versus how they should move, that the stars on the inner most part of the galaxy should be rotating faster than those on the outside. Rubin and her partner Ford found this to be untrue, meaning that there was mass unaccounted for in the outer parts of the galaxy, propelling those stars as fast as the ones on the inside. Since the 1930s there was always an inkling that there was more out there in the universe that we cannot see with even the most advanced technology, and this discovery by Rubin and Ford only further cemented the idea. Dark Matter became the cosmic adhesive that keeps galaxies together, so long as they aren’t influenced by an outside force (like another galaxy… gravity is a fickle thing). It was this work on the Andromeda galaxy that not only convinced the astronomy community as a whole that Dark Matter is elusive, but real, and has led scientists even further down the road to discovering more and more about the “invisible” mass between  the bits of light in our night skies.

Vera Rubin
Carnegie Science

In 2000, Rubin published a review titled “One Hundred Years of Rotating Galaxies”, which was for the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, talking about her groundbreaking work up until that point. She was honored in cartoon form in the 13th episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, helping be one of the current astronomers to close out the award-winning series. Rubin, who continued to work on further analyzing the movement of outer stars in a galaxy long after her Dark Matter mic drop, passed away December 25th, 2016.

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