The Monthly / The Stuff Between the Stars / Vera Rubin

What Was on My . . .

6 March 2021

Last week was the release of The Stuff Between the Stars: How Vera Rubin Discovered Most of the Universe. So, what was on my mind? Two words: Vera Rubin.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the magnitude of her work. Her discovery that the universe is held together by vast amounts of dark matter revolutionized modern astronomy. It’s of the same grandeur as Aristotle’s realization that the earth is not flat and Copernicus’ discovery that the sun is not orbiting the earth. As the New York Times put it, Vera Rubin’s work ushered in a “Copernican-scale change in cosmic consciousness, namely the realization that what astronomers always saw and thought was the universe is just the visible tip of a lumbering iceberg of mystery.”

When I first told people that I had written a story about Vera Rubin, I received blank stares. I quickly added, “the woman who discovered dark matter.” Dark matter they had heard of. But to this day, many don’t know Vera Rubin’s name outside of the world of astronomy. This is largely because the gender discrimination she suffered throughout her life extended to the Nobel Prize, which she was not awarded. Her name was advocated time and again for the Prize in Physics. And time and again, she was passed over. The prize was given to men and never a woman. It added up to a good forty years of being passed over. Just think how many people would know her name if she had won. Just think how many people know the name of Marie Curie, who won the prize in 1903.

Vera Rubin at the Lowell Observatory in 1965. Photo: Carnegie Institution

I also couldn’t stop thinking about how hard it must have been for Vera Rubin to follow her dream. From a young age, teachers and advisors tried to dissuade her from studying science. She was the only astronomy major at Vassar. Her master’s thesis advisor tried to take credit for her ideas, suggesting that he would be the better person to present her research at a preeminent conference of American astronomers. When she insisted on going herself, the male astronomers attending told her that her ideas were “ridiculous” and “outlandish.” Later, when some of America’s leading scientists invited her to speak at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., Vera was only allowed to enter through the side door. At another location, she was forced to discuss her ideas in the lobby, because women were not allowed in the offices where the scientists worked.

Despite all of this (and more), Vera Rubin found her own way of doing what she loved. She dedicated a decade to teaching and raising her much-loved children. When her youngest was old enough to allow her to travel, she talked the Carnegie Institution into giving her a job so she could have access to their mountain observatories. As America’s most important astronomers huddled around other questions, Vera quietly looked at the stars on the edges of galaxies–stars that nobody else was interested in. The beauty of choosing this path is that it led Vera to her discoveries relating to dark matter. By choosing a path far away from the harsh words and discrimination, she revolutionized astronomy and how we see our universe today. 

And so you see why I wrote about Vera Rubin. Can you imagine a better role model for children? She blazed her own trail. She found a way to do what she loved. And in so doing, she was able to discover what nobody else was able to discover.

Still, some people are surprised that dark matter features in a picture book. Maybe this is because it sounds so mysterious. As I tell kids, it’s not called dark because it’s gone over to the dark side. It’s called dark simply because it doesn’t shine. It doesn’t burn bright like a star or reflect like a planet. Maybe people are surprised that dark matter features in a picture book because they think it’s too complicated for kids. With this, I have to disagree. I am a big believer that nothing is too complicated for the bright minds of children. I think Vera Rubin would agree. After all, she left the mystery of dark matter to “the adventurous scientists of the future.”

Be sure to stop by again on March 15th, when I’ll have a rare guest from my adopted country of Switzerland. Laurie Theurer and 50 Amazing Swiss Women will join us in celebration of Switzerland giving women the vote fifty years ago. (I know, it’s hard to believe–1971–but it’s true.)

Also, plan on stopping by on March 30th when Erin Dealey and Peter Easter Frog stop by to tell us What Was on their garden path. (I hope it’s an Easter egg. But who knows?) 

To find out more about The Stuff Between the Stars, please visit my website HERE.

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