Vera Rubin, Who Witnessed the Invisible Side of the Universe
The American astrophysicist was a pioneer in her field, despite the machismo that restricts science even today.
The notion that most of the universe is made up of something called “dark matter” is familiar to fans of popular science. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to explain. How can we be sure that up to 90% of what exists in the universe is actually something that can’t be seen, but which we know is there simply through its effects on the visible universe
Vera Rubin was among the most important scientific minds of the past century. This is evidenced by her outstanding work in demonstrating and describing the existence of dark matter. During the 1960s and 70s, Rubin worked with the astronomer Henry Ford to study the behavior of spiral galaxies, and specifically the outer stars: how was it possible for stars, at the center of a galaxy, and at the outer limits, to both move at the same speed? That made no sense according to Newton’s gravitational theory, but observations showed it happening.
The existence of dark matter had been proposed in the 1930s by Swiss astrophysicist, Fritz Zwicky, to explain gravitational inconsistencies in the behavior of stars. The theory was unproven, though, until Rubin. While this was hardly a coincidence, given her historical context it was still highly improbable.
As a child, Rubin felt a great passion for science. As her studies progressed, it became clear to her that astrophysics was dominated almost exclusively by men. The only woman to graduate with a degree in astronomy from Vassar, in 1948, she couldn’t enter Princeton to study for her doctorate because the institution simply didn’t accept women at that time. Rubin was – without intending it, but also without avoiding the responsibility – a great advocate for the rights of women to do science.
Thus, like light and dark matter, knowledge and ignorance seem unequally distributed throughout the world. Rubin wrote that: “in a spiral galaxy, the ratio of dark-to-light matter is about a factor of ten. That’s probably a good number for the ratio of our ignorance-to-knowledge. We’re out of kindergarten, but only in about third grade.”
In the future, she’d be chosen for the National Academy of Sciences for her work. She received her doctorate when her first child had been born, and she was pregnant with a second. She was the first woman to be admitted to many institutions and research centers that had been exclusively for men. Like dark matter – which helps to explain why the outer stars of a galaxy move as fast as those at the center – sexism in the sciences was self-evident, but no one dared to question or explain it. Rubin always worked under three principles (from her book Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters):
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.
Vera Rubin will be remembered as a fighter who dared to challenge the state of things by entering unexplored territory: mathematics that explained the acceleration of distant celestial bodies to great centers of gravity, and a prejudiced idea from the past century that women couldn’t do science. Her life and work were eloquent demonstrations that just because we can’t see something, its effects don’t stop in the world around us.
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