Vera Rubin was an American astronomer best known for her role in confirming the existence of dark matter.
Vera was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 23 July 1928. From the time she was very young, she knew she wanted to be an astronomer. She didn’t actually know anyone who was an astronomer and women studying astronomy was enormously rare at the time. Still, Vera was obsessed with the stars.
There was just nothing as interesting in my life as watching the stars every night.
As a young girl, Vera lived in Washington DC, and she would stare out her window at night, watching the movement of the stars. When they had meteor showers, she would try to memorise and draw maps of the paths they had taken. Though her parents were concerned about Vera’s desire to stay up all night studying the sky, they were supportive of her love of stars. Her father, an electrical engineer, even helped her build a telescope when she was 10.
As a young girl, Vera read a book about Maria Mitchell, an acclaimed American astronomer who taught at Vassar prior to her death in 1889. Vera deeply admired Maria, and so when the time came to apply to colleges, she picked Vassar. She was offered a scholarship and graduated three years later. Shortly after graduation, Vera married, and though she was offered admission to Harvard, she turned them down in order to follow her husband to Cornell. There, she earned her master’s degree in physics, studying under legends in the field like Richard Feynman, before going on to Georgetown, where she earned her PhD.
After graduate school, Vera remained at Georgetown, where she taught for several years before going to work at the Carnegie Institute. There, she began working with Kent Ford, a fellow astronomer, on the study of spiral galaxies. Together, they measured the speed with which stars in the spiral galaxies moved. In doing so, they discovered that stars in the less-populated portions of the galaxies moved just as quickly as those in the centre, which seemed to fly in the face of conventional astronomy wisdom at the time.
In looking at the galaxies, it did not appear as though they held enough gravity to keep stars moving that rapidly in that area in orbit. But they were. Though she was initially perplexed, Vera determined this must mean that there was matter in these galaxies that could not be seen. That matter eventually came to be known as dark matter, and although Vera’s theory was initially met with considerable resistance, it has since come to be one of the most accepted and intriguing mysteries in astronomy today.
As a result of her groundbreaking work, Vera was granted entry into the National Academy of Sciences in 1992 and given the National Medal of Science in 1993. She died in 2016, but her legacy lives on in the researchers currently working to uncover the mysteries of dark matter and the female astronomers for whom she paved the way.