Vera Florence Cooper Rubin (//; July 23, 1928 – December 25, 2016) was an American astronomer who pioneered work on galaxy rotation rates. She uncovered the discrepancy between the predicted angular motion of galaxies and the observed motion, by studying galactic rotation curves. This phenomenon became known as the galaxy rotation problem, and was evidence of the existence of dark matter. Although initially met with skepticism, Rubin's results were confirmed over subsequent decades. Her legacy was described by The New York Times as "ushering in a Copernican-scale change" in cosmological theory.
Beginning her academic career as the sole undergraduate in astronomy at Vassar College, Rubin went on to graduate studies at Cornell University and Georgetown University, where she observed deviations from Hubble flow in galaxies and provided evidence for the existence of galactic superclusters.
Rubin spent her life advocating for women in science and was known for her mentorship of aspiring women astronomers. Her data provided some of the first evidence for dark matter, which had been theorized by Fritz Zwicky in the 1930s. She was honored throughout her career for her achievements, and received the Bruce Medal, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, and the National Medal of Science, among others.
Vera Rubin was born Vera Florence Cooper, on July 23, 1928, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was the younger of two sisters. Her parents were Jewish immigrants: Philip Cooper, a Lithuanian-American electrical engineer who worked at Bell Telephone and Rose Applebaum Cooper, of Bessarabian origin, who worked at Bell until their marriage. Her father was born in Vilnius, Lithuania, as Pesach Kobchefski.
The Coopers moved to Washington, D.C. in 1938, where 10-year-old Vera developed an interest in astronomy watching the stars from her window. She built a crude telescope out of cardboard with her father, and began to observe and track meteors. She attended Coolidge Senior High School, graduating in 1944.
Rubin was inspired to pursue an undergraduate education at the currently all-women's school, Vassar College, because Maria Mitchell had been a professor there. She also ignored advice she had received from a high school science teacher to avoid a scientific career and become an artist. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa and earned her bachelor's degree in astronomy in 1948, the only graduate in astronomy that year. She attempted to enroll in a graduate program at Princeton, but was barred due to her gender. Princeton would not accept women as astronomy graduate students for 27 more years. Rubin also turned down an offer from Harvard University due to her husband, Robert Rubin's, position as a graduate student at Cornell University.
She enrolled at Cornell University, and earned a master's degree in 1951. During her graduate studies, she studied the motions of 109 galaxies and made one of the first observations of deviations from Hubble flow (how the galaxies move apart from one another). She worked with astronomer Martha Carpenter on galactic dynamics, and studied under Philip Morrison, Hans Bethe, and Richard Feynman. Though the conclusion she came to - that there was an orbital motion of galaxies around a particular pole - was disproven, the idea that galaxies were moving held true and sparked further research. Her research also provided early evidence of the supergalactic plane. This information and the data she discovered was immensely controversial, and after fighting to be allowed to present her work at the American Astronomical Society despite being pregnant, she was summarily rejected and the paper forgotten.
Rubin studied for her Ph.D. at Georgetown University, the only university in Washington, DC that offered a graduate degree in astronomy. She was 23 years old and pregnant when she began her doctoral studies, and the Rubins had one young child at home. She began to take classes with Francis Heyden, who recommended her to George Gamow, her eventual doctoral advisor. Her dissertation, completed in 1954, concluded that galaxies clumped together, rather than being randomly distributed through the universe, a controversial idea not pursued by others for two decades. Throughout her graduate studies, she experienced discouraging sexism, including an incident where she was not allowed to meet with her advisor in his office, because women were not allowed in that area of the university.
Rubin held various academic appointments for the next eleven years. She served for a year as an Instructor of Mathematics and Physics at Montgomery County Community College, then worked from 1955-1965 at Georgetown University, as a Research Associate Astronomer, Lecturer (1959-1962), and finally, Assistant Professor of Astronomy (1962-1965). She joined the Carnegie Institute in 1965, as a staff member in the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, where she met her long-time collaborator, instrument-maker Kent Ford. Because she had young children, she did much of her work from home.
In 1963, Rubin began a year-long collaboration with Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge, during which made her first observations of the rotation of galaxies at the McDonald Observatory's 82 inch telescope. During her work at the Carnegie Institute, Rubin applied to observe at the Palomar Observatory in 1965, despite the fact that the building did not have facilities for women. She created her own women's restroom, sidestepping the lack of facilities available for her and becoming the first female astronomer to observe there.
At the Carnegie Institution, Rubin began work related to her controversial thesis regarding galaxy clusters with Ford, making hundreds of observations using Ford's image-tube spectrograph. This instrument allowed Rubin to amplify starlight seen through the telescope so they could view astronomical objects that were previously too dim to see. The Rubin–Ford effect, an apparent anisotropy in the expansion of the Universe on the scale of 100 million light years, was discovered through studies of spiral galaxies, particularly the Andromeda Galaxy, chosen for its brightness and proximity to Earth. First appearing in journals in 1976, the idea of peculiar motion on this scale in the universe was a highly controversial proposition, dismissed by leading astronomers but ultimately shown to be valid. The effect is now known as large scale streaming. The pair also briefly studied quasars, which had been discovered in 1963 and were a popular topic of research.
Wishing to avoid controversial areas of astronomy, including quasars and galactic motion, Rubin began to study the rotation and outer reaches of galaxies, an interest sparked by her collaboration with the Burbidges. She investigated the rotation curves of spiral galaxies, again beginning with Andromeda, by looking at their outermost material, and observed flat rotation curves: the outermost components of the galaxy were moving as quickly as those close to the center. This was an early indication that spiral galaxies were surrounded by dark matter haloes. She further uncovered the discrepancy between the predicted angular motion of galaxies based on the visible light and the observed motion. Her research showed that spiral galaxies rotate quickly enough that they should fly apart, if the gravity of their constituent stars was all that was holding them together; because they stay intact, a large amount of unseen mass must be holding them together, a conundrum that became known as the galaxy rotation problem.
Rubin's calculations showed that galaxies must contain at least five to ten times as much dark matter as ordinary matter. Rubin's results were confirmed over subsequent decades, and became the first persuasive results supporting the theory of dark matter, initially proposed by Fritz Zwicky in the 1930s. This data was confirmed by radio astronomers, the discovery of the cosmic microwave background, and images of gravitational lensing. Her research also prompted a theory of non-Newtonian gravity on galactic scales, but this theory has not been widely accepted by astrophysicists.
Another area of interest for Rubin was the phenomenon of counter-rotation in galaxies. Her discovery that some gas and stars moved in the opposite direction to the rotation of the rest of the galaxy challenged the prevailing theory that all of the material in a galaxy moved in the same direction, and provided the first evidence for galaxy mergers and the process by which galaxies initially formed.
Rubin's perspective on the history of the work on galaxy movements was presented in a review, "One Hundred Years of Rotating Galaxies," for the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in 2000. This was an adaptation of the lecture she gave in 1996 upon receiving the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the second woman to be so honored, 168 years after Caroline Herschel received the Medal in 1828. She continued her research and mentorship until her death in 2016.
When Rubin was elected to the National Academy of Science, she became the second woman astronomer in its ranks, after her colleague Margaret Burbidge. Rubin never won the Nobel Prize, though physicists such as Lisa Randall and Emily Levesque have argued that this was an oversight. She was described by Sandra Faber and Neta Bahcall as one of the astronomers who paved the way for other women in the field, as a "guiding light" for those who wished to have families and careers in astronomy. Rebecca Oppenheimer also recalled Rubin's mentorship as important to her early career.
Rubin died on the night of December 25, 2016 of complications associated with dementia. The president of the Carnegie Institution, where she performed the bulk of her work and research, called her a "national treasure."
The Carnegie Institute has created a postdoctoral research fund in Rubin's honor, and the American Astronomical Society has named its Division of Dynamical Astronomy early career award after Rubin.
Rubin was featured in an animated segment of the 13th and final episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. An area on Mars, Vera Rubin Ridge, is named after her and Asteroid 5726 Rubin was named in her honor.
From 1948 until his death in 2008, she was married to Robert Rubin. Rubin became a mother during her graduate studies at Cornell, and continued to work on her research while raising her young children. All four of her children earned Ph.D.s in the natural sciences or mathematics: David (born 1950), a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey; Judith Young (1952–2014), an astronomer at the University of Massachusetts; Karl (born 1956), a mathematician at the University of California at Irvine; and Allan (born 1960), a geologist at Princeton University. Her children recalled later in life that their mother made a life of science appear desirable and fun, which motivated them to become scientists themselves.
Motivated by her own battle to gain credibility as a woman in a field dominated by male astronomers, Rubin encouraged girls interested in investigating the universe to pursue their dreams. She faced discouraging comments on her choice of study throughout her life, but persevered, supported by family and colleagues. In addition to astronomy, Rubin was a force for greater recognition of women in the sciences and for scientific literacy. She and Burbidge advocated together for more women in the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), on review panels, and in academic searches. She said that despite her struggles with the NAS, she continued to be dissatisfied with the number of women who are elected each year, and called it "the saddest part of [her] life". Rubin was Jewish, and saw no conflict between science and religion. In an interview, she stated: "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."
The following are a small selection of articles selected by the scientists and historians of the CWP project, as being representative of her most important writings; Rubin published over 150 scientific papers.
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