Science Bits: Vera Rubin: The Scientist Who Confirmed the Existence of Dark Matter

Vera Rubin. C.C. License

Vera Rubin, a pioneering astronomer, studied the dynamics of galaxies and confirmed the existence of dark matter. She passed away on December 25, 2016 without ever receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics, a decision definitely influenced by gender bias. Only two women have received the Nobel Prize in Physics: Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Geoppert Mayer in 1963.

Vera Rubin was captivated by the stars since an early age. Rubin used to watch in marvel at the stars from her bedroom's window. Her parents were supportive of her ambitions, and her father helped her build a telescope.
Vera Rubin as a kid. C.C. License.
Rubin obtained a scholarship to attend Vassar College, from where she graduated as the only astronomy major in 1948. She intended to attend Princeton University for her graduate studies, but this prestigious university didn’t accept women in its astronomy program. She went on to complete her master's degree in astronomy at Cornell University. In 1954, she finished her Ph. D at Georgetown University, where she worked for a decade.

During the 1960s, Rubin was the first woman to do research at the Palomar Observatory in California. In 1965, She started working at the Carnegie Institution's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, where there were no women's bathroom. She just cut a piece of paper into a skirt and pasted it to the men's silhouette on the bathroom's door. Nothing was going to stop her.

She met the astronomer Kent Ford at the Carnegie Institution's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. They became a team and used Ford's advanced spectrometer to calculate how fast galaxies rotate and determine the distribution of mass in spiral galaxies.
Rubin and Ford thought that they were going to find the concentration of mass at the center of galaxies because that is where the starlight predominates. As a result, their hypothesis was that the stars in the inner regions of a galaxy move faster than the stars located at the outer regions.

To their surprise and contrary to Einstein's and Newtown's laws, they found out that the stars located at the outer regions were speeding up. It meant that there was mass speeding up the stars, but this mass was invisible. They confirmed the existence of dark matter!

Dark matter is invisible and unidentified material that encompasses 90% of the universe. Dark matter remains one of the biggest mysteries of the universe.

Dark matter according to scientists. C.C. License.

Books on Vera Rubin
For children, Rubin is one of 50 renowned women scientists included in Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World.

For adults, Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters (Masters of Modern Physics) by Vera Rubin (1997-09-01) features a selection of essays on dark matter, galaxies, astronomy, astrophysics by Vera Rubin.

Sources on Vera Rubin


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