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RIP Vera Rubin, the Jewish Astronomer Who Discovered Dark Matter

vera rubin

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If you haven’t heard of Vera Rubin, you will now. She was one of the most important astrophysicists of our time–she discovered evidence of dark matter. The Jewish scientist passed away this past Sunday night at the age of 88.

Rubin, who did much of her work at the Carnegie Institution, has been called a “national treasure” by the organization’s president. During the ’60s and ’70s, Rubin discovred that the stars at the outside of the galaxy were moving just as fast as the ones in the middle, which, you know, didn’t fit with Newtonian gravitational theory. So, this is when she figured out it must be dark matter. NBD, right?

Adam Frank, an astrophysicist who writes for NPR’s 13.7 blog, described dark matter as being invisible (which makes it seem kind of magical):

“It was Vera Rubin’s famous work in the 1970s that showed pretty much all spiral galaxies were spinning way too fast to be accounted for by the gravitational pull of the their ‘luminous’ matter (the stuff we see in a telescope). Rubin and others reasoned there had to be a giant sphere of invisible stuff surrounding the stars in these galaxies, tugging on them and speeding up their orbits around the galaxy’s center.”

Of course, the idea of dark matter wasn’t entirely Rubin’s, as the notion had already been proposed by Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky in the 1930s, but wasn’t confirmed until Rubin’s realization. Now, it’s said that over 90% of the universe is composed of dark energy and dark matter.

Besides all of this, Rubin was an advocate for women in the sciences–especially as she was often the only woman in the field. For instance, she was the only astronomy major to graduate from the women’s college Vassar in 1948, and wasn’t allowed to enter Princeton’s astronomy program because it didn’t accept women. Crazily, she was the first woman allowed to observe at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory. Rubin also was a mother to four children–proving that she could be both a scientist and mom.

Strange to think of a time when women literally weren’t allowed to study. This fact alone definitely makes you grateful for just how far women have come since. When Rubin was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and awarded the National Medal of Science, she rallied for women even then, stating:

“I live and work with three basic assumptions:

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.”

Rubin’s scientific discoveries didn’t change her religious beliefs either. In an interview, she famously said:

“In my own life, my science and my religion are separate. I’m Jewish, and so religion to me is a kind of moral code and a kind of history. I try to do my science in a moral way, and, I believe that, ideally, science should be looked upon as something that helps us understand our role in the universe.”

Thanks to people like Rubin, women are working and succeeding in male-dominated fields. While it is sad that Rubin is no longer in our world, her accomplishments will live on forever in the stars.


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