In Tribute to Vera Rubin

Courtesy of Carnegie Institution of Washington

Courtesy of Carnegie Institution of Washington

In the 113 years that the Nobel Prize has been awarded, only two women have ever received the prize for Physics: Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963.

This past October, a public furor ensued when the Nobel Prize Committee failed to award any women at all with the Prize. The outcry also inspired an unofficial online campaign to call attention to the Committee’s failure to recognize the contributions of Vera Rubin, a WINGS Fellow who discovered that the universe is comprised mainly of dark matter, an unidentifiable substance that is distinct from ordinary matter.

The call to recognize Rubin was urgent, as she was 88 at the time. Nobel Prizes can be awarded only to the living.

Rubin died on December 25. Although she did win other awards, many were critical of the Committee’s oversight and lamented that she would never be recognized with the Prize. (Not even Mahatma Gandhi was given the award posthumously.)

Even so, Rubin leaves behind a remarkable legacy in the way that we now understand the universe. But she was also a fierce advocate for women in science. She was a pioneer – at times, even a rebel.

Rubin grew up in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.; from the age of 10 she knew that she wanted to be an astronomer.

In a 1992 interview for the publication Mercury, she said, “I knew I wanted to be an astronomer. I didn’t know a single astronomer, male or female. Being a woman didn’t bother me at all. I didn’t think that all astronomers were male, because I didn’t know. I didn’t even know how you became an astronomer.”

When she received a scholarship to attend Vassar College, her high school physics teacher told her, “You should do OK as long as you stay away from science.”

She studied astronomy.

She married a physicist and had four children, two of whom were geologists, one of whom was a mathematician, and her only daughter, Dr. Judith Young, who died in 2014 at the age of 61, was also an astronomer.

In 1947, Rubin was denied admittance to the Princeton graduate school because women were not allowed to study there. Princeton didn’t allow women to study graduate physics until 1971, graduate astronomy until 1975 and graduate math until 1976, according to a talk Rubin gave at a 1990 conference on retaining women in physics.

She was the first woman to be legally permitted to observe at the Palomar Observatory in San Diego, California. Historically, observatories did not allow women; one argument was that they did not have the appropriate bathroom facilities to accommodate them.

In the same Mercury article, Rubin recounted a story about the bathroom on the ground floor of Palomar, which still bore a “Men” sign, nearly 30 years after she had first observed there:

“About two years ago, I sort of got annoyed at this ‘Men’ sign and I cut out a little figure with a skirt and pasted it up,” she said. “It stayed for the four days I was there, but it wasn’t there the next year.”

When asked why Rubin thought she was the first woman permitted to observe there, she said “Let me hope that the work I was doing was interesting enough.”

In 1976 when the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum debuted its first planetarium show, a feature on 200 years of American astronomy, it included only men, all but one of them white. After lobbying for months to have the presentation corrected, she was told that the show was recorded and could not be changed.

In her collection of essays, Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters, Rubin writes firsthand about astronomy, as well as women in science. At the time, women constituted less than 5 percent of all physicists and less than 7 percent of all astronomers. She notes that despite the contributions of both women and minorities to astronomy, there are limited opportunities for those groups to enter the field.

In her 1990 essay “Opening the Doors,” she writes at length about what can be done to encourage more women to work in science: she says that little girls need role models and that women students should not quit.

Despite knowing that obstacles lay ahead for women, she remained optimistic:

“For any who wish to be an astronomer, rather than marry one, and who are willing to work for it, I hope your lives will be filled with many options.”

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