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Vera Rubin

Page history last edited by joseph smallwood 10 years, 1 month ago

Vera Rubin 

          By: Joseph Lee SmallwoodVera C. Rubin


     Vera Rubin (b. 23 July, 1928 - Present) was an essential part in how we understand the galaxy today. Her research and evidence have proven the theory of Dr. Fritz Zwicky to give us the breakthrough that has led to continued and advanced understanding of our universe. She has broken many barriers for women in the field of astronomy and continues to push for more women in science.



     Vera Cooper Rubin was born July 23, 1928 in Philadelphia, PA. Her father was Philip Cooper, an electrical engineer, and her mother Rose. She first developed an interest in astronomy at the age of ten while stargazing from her home in Washington D.C. Her father encouraged her to follow her dreams and took her to amateur astronomer meetings.

     She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Vassar University in 1948 of which she was the only astronomy major that year. She was married in 1948 to Robert Rubin and has four children all with Doctorate degrees. Later she earned her master’s from Cornell in 1950 with her masters’ thesis was controversial and centered around the possibility of bulk rotation by looking for “sideways” motion of galaxies. She finally got her Ph.D. from Georgetown University in 1954. Her doctoral thesis was on the clustering of galaxies and how she describes the definite clumping and not random distribution throughout the sky. She had attempted to enroll in Princeton for her master’s degree, but at the time women were not allowed in the graduate astronomy program.


Contributions to STEM

     Rubin is most notable for providing a great deal of compelling evidence, alongside Dr. Kent Ford, that proved Fritz Zwicky’s Theory of the existence of Dark Matter. Zwicky stated that individual galaxies within the Coma Cluster were moving so fast that if they were only held by the gravity of its visible mass that it would escape. Since he found no evidence of the cluster falling apart he concluded that there must be something else holding it together that was nearly ten times that of visible matter, he called this Dark matter. While working with Dr. Ford, they began analyzing the light coming from stars in spiral galaxies. They used what is called the “Doppler effect” which states the wavelength shift is proportional to the speed of the light source relative to the observer. This uses the wavelength of light in how it is approaching or moving away from the observer. When a light source moves away from you it presents a red color and when it comes toward you it presents a blue light.

     After measuring several stars in different parts of galaxies, they were able to calculate the orbital speeds of each star. Because of the enormous mass of stars and the high concentration of visible stars in the core of a galaxy, it was assumed that most of its mass and therefore gravity would be concentrated in center of said galaxy. This also made astronomers assume that the farther away from the center a star was the longer the orbit, or slower orbital speed was. During the calculations of orbital speeds Dr. Rubin and Dr. Ford discovered that the outer stars were moving at the same speed as those closest to the center. This was in contrast to the thought that the mass, or gravity, could not hold a star that was moving at those speeds from so far away. After studying multiple galaxies that concluded the same results she began to realize that she had conclusive evidence to support Zwicky’s theory. They realized that despite the large mass of the visible stars in the core of a galaxy, it was only the inner circle to a much larger halo of unseen “dark matter”. Their findings were widely disputed and argued over at first but due to the overwhelming and simple evidence that was presented it was soon accepted as the truth. So far Dark matter has remained a mystery to this day, as its only observance is by the effect of gravity on its stars.

     Dr. Rubin has received numerous awards including the 1993 Presidential National Medal of Science, the 1994 Dickenson Prize in Science from Carnegie-Mellon University, the 1994 Russell Lectureship Prize of the American Astronomical Society, in 2004 the National Academy of Sciences’ James Craig Watson Medal, in 2002 Cosmology Prize of the Peter Gruber Foundation, in 1996 the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (London), in 2003 the Bruce Medal for lifetime achievement in astronomy, the Richtmyer Award in 2008, the Weizmann Women and Science Award in 1996, and in 1994 the Karl G. Jansky Lectureship award.

     Because of her success, she has received several honorary Doctorates including ones from Creighton University (1978), Harvard University (1988), Yale University (1990), Williams College (1993), University of Michigan (1996), Georgetown University 1997, Ohio State University (1998), Smith College (2001), Grinnell College (2001), Ohio Wesleyan University (2004), and Princeton University (2005). She has been a part of many scientific organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, The American Philosophical Society, International Astronomical Union, National Academy of Sciences, the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. She is the author to several books and over 200 articles about galaxies and their motions.


Interesting Facts

     An interesting fact is that even though Dr. Rubin was the first woman allowed to “legally” use the Palomar observatory, there were other women that had used it before. The first was Payne-Gaposchkin in the 1930s while visiting California she was allowed access to the telescope for a few hours. The second Margaret Burbridge had applied for fellowship in the 1940’s but was denied. In 1955 her husband was granted the Carnegie Fellowship and he brought her along with him when he had time with the telescope. 

  • In 1988 E.M. Shoemaker and C.S. Shoemaker discovered asteroid (designated 1988 BN2) at Palomar observatory in California Institute of Technology. They named this after Dr. Rubin in recognitions of her achievements and contributions to the field of astronomy and science.
  • In 1965 she became the first woman authorized to use the observatory at the Palomar Observatory.
  • When she received the gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1996, she was the first woman to receive this award since 1828 .
  • Dr. Rubin once said that she wished her findings turned out to be untrue and that “If I could have my pick, I would like to learn that Newton's laws must be modified in order to correctly describe gravitational interactions at large distances," she says. "That's more appealing than a universe filled with a new kind of sub-nuclear particle. 
  • Not only does all four of her children have doctorates but her youngest daughter is also an astronomer at University of Massachusetts.
  • In 1992 she discovered a galaxy in which half of the stars were rotating in one direction and the other half in the other direction. She has since found several more galaxies with similar unusual behavior.
  • Despite doing her Doctoral thesis on galaxy clumping in 1954, it was not seriously pursued by the scientific community until the late 1970s.


Impact to 21st Century Culture and Society

     Dr. Rubin has been an important voice in the growth of women in the sciences. She has been outspoken on the need for more females in the National Academy of Science, on review panels, and for greater recognition for the works that women have done in science. When she first burst onto the scientific scene with her evidence of Zwicky’s theory, she paved the way for other women to enter the scientific community. Yet despite this, she continues to fight with the National Academy of Sciences and continues to be dissatisfied over the number of women who are elected each year. She claims it is the saddest part of her life and says, "Thirty years ago, I thought everything was possible." Remembering what it was like to be a lone woman staring at galaxies, Vera Rubin considers it a responsibility and a privilege to be a mentor. “It is well known,” she says, “that I am available twenty-four hours a day to women astronomers.” She continues to contribute to the field of astronomy as well as being a leader in the fight for women in STEM fields. Her and the women like her should be brought into the light for the contributions they have made in science and the difference they continue to make in the lives of young girls worldwide.


Works Cited

Larsen, Kristine. "Vera Cooper Rubin." Jwa.org. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. Web. April 18, 2014. 


American Musuem of Natural History. "Vera Rubin and Dark Matter." www.amnh.org. n.d. Web. April 18, 2014. 


Gruber Foundation"2002 Gruber Cosmology Prize Press Release." gruber.yale.edu. 2011. n.d. Web. April 18, 2014.  


Carnegie Institurion for Science. "Carnegie’s Vera Rubin to Receive Richtmyer Award." arnegiescience.edu. November 2, 2007. Web. April 21, 2014.


American Philosophical Society. "American Philosophical Society Member History." www.amphilsoc.org. n.d. Web. April 21, 2014.  


The Karl G. Jansky Lectureship. "Jansky Prize." www.nrao.edu. n.d. Web. April 21, 2014. 


Johnson, Ben. Tsai, Meigy. "Vera Cooper Rubin." www.physics.ucla.edu. April 8, 1999. Web. April 21, 2014. 


The Pontifical Academy of Sciences. "Vera C. Rubin." n.d. www.casinapioiv.va. Web. April 21, 2014. 


"Vera Rubin." www.nndb.com. n.d. Web. April 21, 2014. 


Astronomical Society of the Pacific. "Vera Rubin wins 2003 ASP Bruce Medal and Other ASP Awards." www.spaceref.com. n.d. Web. April 21, 2014.


Schmadel, Lutz. " Dictionary of Minor Planet Names, Volume 1." books.google.com. 2003. Web. April 23, 2014.


Brooks, Michael. "13 things that do not make sense." www.newscientist.com. March 19, 2005. Web. April 23, 2014.


"2002 Cosmology Prize: Vera Rubin." gruber.yale.edu. 2011. Web. April 23, 2014.

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