In January 2010, the American Institute of Physics and American Association of Physics Teachers held their annual conference in Washington DC. Annenberg Learner was extremely proud to preview its soon-to-be-completed new course Physics for the 21st Century. Dr. Vera Rubin, a major figure in astronomy and pioneering woman of science, came by the exhibit booth to view a short promotion video for the course. About halfway through the 6-minute piece she declared, “There aren’t enough women in it!” Of course, we revised the video.
This attitude is a hallmark of Vera Rubin, who was fascinated by the movements of the stars at age 10 and who went on to break through barriers in the male-dominated field of science to detect evidence of the mysterious substance known as dark matter.
This giant in the world of science passed away on December 25, 2016 at age 88. Like many senior women in the sciences, Vera Cooper Rubin was steered by teachers and counselors away from pursing an education in science because they could not conceive of a female being successful in that realm. Our blog from March 2013 tells the story.
A Washington Post article explained how she handled slights and worse from male colleagues and superiors, and how she supported women scientists to the fullest. In the 1960s, Rubin was told she could not use the restroom at the exclusive San Diego Palomar Observatory because there was no ladies’ room. She solved the problem by adding a paper skirt to the image on the men’s room door and announced that the facility now had a ladies’ room.
Dr. Rubin and her colleague Kent Ford at the Carnegie Institute of Science provided evidence for the existence of dark matter in the early 1970s, which was first theorized by Swiss physicist Fritz Zwicky in the 1930s. Rubin and Ford measured the velocity of hydrogen gas clouds in and near the Andromeda galaxy. These hydrogen clouds orbit the galaxy much as stars orbit within the galaxy. Rubin and Ford expected to find that the hydrogen gas outside the visible edge of the galaxy would be moving slower than gas at the edge of the galaxy. Instead, they found the opposite: the orbital velocity of the hydrogen clouds remained constant outside the visible edge of the galaxy, leading to the conclusion that there must be additional dark matter outside the visible edge of the galaxy. Without the additional, invisible dark matter, the galaxy would spin apart. If Andromeda obeyed Newton’s laws, Rubin reasoned, the galaxy must contain dark matter in quantities that increased with increasing distance from the galactic center.
As Rubin’s stature in the field grew, she encouraged women in the sciences who came after her and made better known those who came before her. “One of the things that I have attempted to do in my life, and I clearly haven’t succeeded, is to make the story of Maria Mitchell as well known as the story of Benjamin Franklin,” she said in a 1989 interview with AIP.
While she was guided by the work of astronomers like Maria Mitchell and others, according to Rubin, her drive to understand the workings of the universe came from within. “The only motivation that I can point to is just plain old curiosity. That really has motivated an enormous amount of my work.”