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Vera Rubin, Astronomer

The influential Jewish scientist, who would have been 92 today, now has an observatory named after her

John Tuttle
July 23, 2020
Photo illustration: Kurt Hoffman
Photo illustration: Kurt Hoffman
Photo illustration: Kurt Hoffman
Photo illustration: Kurt Hoffman

The field of modern astronomy has produced a handful of household names: Edwin Hubble, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson—all of them men. But as Vera Rubin enters the pantheon, perhaps that is changing. Earlier this year, following the passage of a bill in Congress, the National Science Foundation announced that it would rename one of its key facilities for the study of dark matter, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, after the astronomer who died in 2016. It’s a fitting tribute to Rubin, whose work included groundbreaking discoveries into the existence of dark matter. The first facility of its kind named for a woman will honor a pioneering Jewish American astronomer whose life balanced science, family, and faith, and totally changed our understanding of the universe.

Vera Florence Cooper Rubin was born on July 23, 1928, in Philadelphia to Philip—born Pesach Kobchefski—and Rose Anna Cooper, Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe. Before she entered her teens, the family moved to Washington, D.C., where her father worked as an electrical engineer for the Bell telephone company. Her interest in astronomy developed early from gazing at the night sky where, in the words of a bygone poet, the stars were “not in lone splendour hung aloft.”

“By about age 12, I would prefer to stay up and watch the stars than go to sleep,” Rubin would tell an interviewer many years later. “I started learning. I started going to the library and reading. But it was initially just watching the stars from my bedroom that I really did. There was just nothing as interesting in my life as watching the stars every night.”

It may have been an unusual passion for a girl at the time but Rubin’s parents were supportive. Philip Cooper worked alongside his daughter when she was in her early teens to construct a rudimentary telescope out of cardboard. He also took her to attend various meetings of amateur astronomers. Her mother, Rose, negotiated terms with a librarian so Rubin could get access to the scientific books in the adult section that would have otherwise been inaccessible to a kid her age. Her parents’ attitude was not always shared by the whole of society. In high school, Rubin later noted, she and the other girl pupils were often neglected by teachers.

Growing up, Rubin’s family was involved with their local Jewish community. Her mother was a temple choir member. The religious upbringing stayed with Rubin throughout her life and remained a significant aspect of her identity. Social reform, a cause that Rubin believed was connected to Judaism, stayed close to her heart. Later in life, she participated at Temple Sinai, a congregation for Reform Judaism, in Washington, D.C. Unlike some of her peers, Rubin did not see her scientific endeavors and her Jewish practice as being at odds with one another.

Rubin Observatory at sunset, lit by a full moon, Cerro Pachón, Chile, May 2020
Rubin Observatory at sunset, lit by a full moon, Cerro Pachón, Chile, May 2020LSST Project/NSF/AURA Rubi

After graduating from high school, Rubin looked to further her passion by studying astronomy in college. It was, in those days, an almost exclusively male field in the already male dominated world of higher education. In 1948, she graduated with her B.A. from Vassar College; the only astronomy student to graduate that year. From there she applied to Princeton University for graduate school but, despite her credentials, the institution never responded. At the time, Princeton was not open to female applicants. Rubin instead entered a graduate program at Cornell University in upstate New York where she was instructed by giants such as Richard Feynman, a renowned physicist and pioneer in the area of quantum mechanics, and Hans Bethe, who had some involvement in the Manhattan Project and would later win a Nobel Prize for his work on nuclear fusion.

While studying at Cornell, Vera met her future husband, Robert Rubin. The two were married soon after meeting, and had four children together. All four of the Rubin kids would go on to earn a Ph.D. in science or mathematics.

Rubin’s master’s thesis concerned the idea that the entire universe was rotating in a “non-Hubble flow” (she later distanced herself from the conclusions, while upholding the research and line of inquiry). The large-scale motion of the galaxies was, itself, a controversial idea and more so coming from a young woman. As Rubin described in a memoir, her academic adviser at Cornell tried to take advantage of the situation to steal credit for her work:

He called me into his office and said (as closely as I can now quote), “This is very interesting and you should give a talk at the December 1950 Haverford AAS meeting. But you will have your new baby, and you are not an AAS member, so I could give the talk but it would have to be in my name.” Immediately I replied, “No. I can go.” We had no car. My parents drove from Washington D.C. to Ithaca, then crossed the snowy New York hills with Bob, me, and their first grandchild, “thereby aging 20 years,” my father later insisted.

Though she received her M.A. from Cornell, controversy made it difficult to publish her thesis and it was rejected by leading academic outlets such as the Astronomical Journal and Astrophysical Journal.

The thesis did bring Rubin into contact with George Gamow, the noted theoretical physicist and cosmologist who would later become her doctoral adviser. Gamow reached out to inquire about her paper. “He contacted me and wanted some details of my master’s work, which I gave to him. Then I asked him if I could come hear this talk, and he said, ‘No,’ because wives were not allowed in the Applied Physics Lab,” Rubin later recalled in an interview.

Moving to Georgetown University as a doctoral student in 1950, Rubin dedicated herself to examining the clustering of galaxies. Supportive of his wife’s ambitions, Robert Rubin drove Vera to campus each day to work on her doctoral studies while her parents, Philip and Rose Cooper, babysat the grandkids.

The conclusion of Rubin’s 1954 doctoral thesis held that galaxies were not, in fact, situated chaotically in the sky, as had previously been the conventional wisdom. Rather, her findings suggested, galaxies were conglomerated in definite clusters. Over the next decade, Rubin rose from research associate to an assistant professor at Georgetown. Then in 1965, she was hired onto the staff of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

In 1965, she became the first woman to be allowed to engage in research (under her own name) at the Mount Palomar Observatory in California. Previously, it was only permissible for a woman to use the observatory when registered under the name of her husband. This change led to a newfound need for a women’s restroom. As one story goes, Rubin had a simple solution. She fashioned a piece of paper to resemble a skirt and pasted it to the door of one of the restrooms.

Rubin was a dedicated advocate for women’s participation in the sciences, fostering women astronomers across several generations. Often, when she found herself in the spotlight, she took the opportunity to address the bigotry she had faced in the field. In a 1996 address at Berkeley, Rubin voiced her hopes for the future:

I hope you will love your work as I love doing astronomy. I hope that you will fight injustice and discrimination in all its guises. I hope you will value diversity among your friends, among your colleagues, and, unlike some of your regents, among the student body population. I hope that when you are in charge, you will do better than my generation has.

Perhaps Rubin’s most significant contribution to astronomy and to humanity’s understanding of the cosmos, was her work that led to the discovery of dark matter—the mysterious substance that scientists now believe comprises some 80% of the density of the entire universe. The earliest ideas about dark matter came from the Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky in 1933, but for many decades advances in knowledge had stalled out. In the 1970s, collaborating with her Carnegie colleague Kent Ford, Rubin made her big discovery. Studying the rotation curves of spiral galaxies, Rubin and Ford identified seeming inconsistencies—like the fact that stars on the outermost rim of the galaxies spin at the same speeds as those toward the center—that provided compelling evidence for the existence of an unseen element: dark matter.

Following her discoveries, dark matter has become a central element in how scientists understand and explain the observable world. That doesn’t mean, however, that science has solved all the fundamental mysteries. As Rubin said in an interview from 2000: “In a spiral galaxy, 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.”

While she advanced in the scientific and professional realm, Rubin remained committed to the traditions of her Jewish upbringing. In a 1996 interview she told the Catholic media outlet EWTN: “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.”

Rubin died on Dec. 25, 2016, in New Jersey, where her son Allan teaches at Princeton University, the same institution she had dreamed of attending in her youth. Her daughter Judith Young (1952-2014) followed in her mother’s shadow more closely, herself becoming an astronomer.

Rubin had several works published during her lifetime and won a slew of awards. In addition to the observatory that is now being renamed for her, there is an asteroid that takes her name: 5726 Rubin.

John Tuttle is a journalist whose work has appeared at The Hill, The Millions, ZME Science, and elsewhere.