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CELEBRATING VERA RUBIN—HERALDER OF DARK MATTER

THERE ARE PEOPLE who confuse cosmologist with cosmetologist. True, cosmology has to do with stars, but not of the Paltrow or Kardashian variety. According to Merriam-Webster, both terms trace back to the Greek word κοσμοσ, kosmos, order. The difference is cosmetology concerns the order of one’s appearance; cosmology, the order of the universe.

Dr. Vera Rubin was a cosmologist. Indeed, one of the cosmologists who proposed the theory of dark matter making up most of our universe.

Vera Florence Cooper Rubin, 1928–2016, American astronomer and cosmologist, mentor of women in astronomy, recipient of a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, Gruber International Cosmology Prize, Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, National Medal of Science, and other honors. Image from thevintagenews.com.

Dark Matter Theory. In 1970, Rubin and astronomical co-researchers Kent Ford and Ken Freeman identified galactic behavior that differed from that predicted by the previous cosmological model. A theoretical presence of dark matter resolved these discrepancies, though initially other astronomers scoffed at this hypothesis.

Today, a half-century later, experimental verification of dark matter is a major quest in both astronomy and particle physics. Gravity of dark matter is thought to bind the universe together, yet it’s elusive enough to require research stretching from deep underground to orbiting telescopes.

Rubin’s Own Telescope. These research efforts are described in “Vera Rubin Gets a Telescope of Her Own, by Dennis Overbye, in The New York Times, January 11, 2020. “Last week,” Overbye writes, “the National Science Foundation announced that the newest observatory joining this cause will be named the Vera C. Rubin Observatory. The name replaces the mouthful by which the project was previously known: the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, or L.S.S.T.

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory, under construction in Cerro Pachon, Chile. This and the following images are from The New York Times, January 11, 2020.

The facility, under construction in the Chilean Andes, will begin operating in 2022. It will be the first national observatory named for a woman.

It’s about time.

Rubin on a Woman’s Role. Jenni Avins writes in Quartz, December 27, 2016, “As a female scientist, Rubin was a trailblazer. She was the only astronomy major in her 1948 graduating class at Vassar College, where she went after getting rejected from Princeton University’s astronomy program, which did not accept women until 1975.”

Astronomer Rubin with colleagues at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1965.

In the preface of her book, Bright Galaxies Dark Matters, Rubin wrote, “I succeeded in my two goals—to have a family and to be an astronomer.” And succeed she did. Her four children have Ph.D.s: an astronomer, two geologists, and a mathematician.

Bright Galaxies Dark Matters, by Vera C. Rubin, Copernicus Books, 1996.

Other Rubin Truisms. From a commencement address at the University of California, Berkeley, 1996: “Devise your own paths…. Science is competitive, aggressive, demanding. It is also imaginative, inspiring, uplifting.”

On Matter and Ignorance. “In a spiral galaxy,” Rubin said, “the ratio of dark-to-light matter is about a factor of 10. 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.”

Room for Her. When Rubin was the first woman to gain access to California’s 200-inch Palomar telescope, she was told there was no ladies room. She took a piece of paper, cut out an outline of a skirt, and taped it on the men’s room door. “Look,” she told her astronomy colleagues, “now you have a ladies room.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020

2 comments on “CELEBRATING VERA RUBIN—HERALDER OF DARK MATTER

  1. Glyn Hnutu-healh
    January 19, 2020

    #NoDarkMatter 😎

  2. carmacarcounselor
    February 11, 2020

    I just rewatched (for the umpteenth time) the movie version of Carl Sagan’s Contact. It makes me grind my teeth at the (undoubtedly accurate) depiction of the systematic exclusion of, nay, hostility toward, women in the sciences. The antidote is to watch Hidden Figures.

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