Vera Rubin Dead At 88, Lady Astronomer Who Pioneered The Existence Of Dark Matter Faced Gender Discrimination Throughout Her Career

Vera Rubin, the famous astronomer, also credited for her research on the existence of dark matter has died. According to The Washington Post, Vera Rubin passed away at an assisted living facility in Princeton, New Jersey at the age of 88 on Christmas day. Her death has been confirmed by her son Allan Rubin, who also said that she was suffering from dementia.

Vera Rubin is famous for entering what is traditionally considered a male dominated bastion and excelling at what she did. She is largely credited for verifying the existence of dark matter, which along with dark energy is now considered one of the fundamental principles in the study of the universe. Her discoveries, made along with physicist W. Kent Ford in the 70s brought a sea of change in the way scientists observed and understood the universe. Many of her peers and later, her successors cannot but agree upon the contribution made by Vera Rubin in the study of dark matter and our current understanding of astronomy

Vera Rubin, whose parents happened to be Jewish immigrants was born Vera Florence Cooper on July 23, 1928 in Philadelphia. Rubin’s father Philip Cooper, was born in Vilnius, Lithuania and was originally named Pesach Kobchefski and worked as an electrical engineer while her mother, Rose Applebaum, worked for the Bell Telephone company. She also has an elder sister named Ruth Cooper Burg, who worked as an administrative judge in the United States Department of Defense. By the time Vera had turned 10, the family had moved to Washington, D.C. It was in Washington that Rubin started to develop an interest in astronomy. She studied at the Coolidge High School following which she enrolled herself at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. for her BA degree in astronomy. Rubin eventually earned a master’s degree from Cornell back in 1951, and later, a doctorate in astronomy from Georgetown in 1954. Before she dedicated herself to research, she also taught at Montgomery college and later, Georgetown.

Early in her career, Rubin began to face blatant gender discrimination. It started in the 40’s when she first attempted enrolling herself at Princeton for their graduate astronomy program. However, she was turned away from there because at the time women were not allowed to pursue the course. In fact, it would take Princeton 30 more years before they decided to scrap the regressive practice. Turned away from Princeton, she eventually enrolled herself for a Master’s degree in science at Cornell University. At Cornell, she studied physics under Philip Morrison, quantum physics under Richard Feynman, and quantum mechanics under Hans Bethe. Later in her career too, she faced several instances of gender bias. In the 60s, she was unable to easily gain admittance to leading observatories. When in 1964, she was eventually allowed to use the Palomar Observatory in Southern California, she soon figured that the place did not have a women’s restroom

After graduating she spent most of her career at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. It is there where she was credited of making several discoveries. Early in her career, Vera was intrigued by the then new concept of dark matter and dark energy, first talked about in the 30s, Vera would eventually prove the existence of dark matter after her research with Kent Ford. In fact, this discovery is now considered one of the most significant advances in astronomy in recent times.

Emily Levesque, an astronomer from the University of Washington talked about Rubin’s priceless contribution to the field in an interview earlier this year when she said;

“The existence of dark matter has utterly revolutionized our concept of the universe and our entire field. The ongoing effort to understand the role of dark matter has basically spawned entire subfields within astrophysics and particle physics.”

Later, Rubin would go on to discover several new galaxies. She was so prolific with her research, she was for a long time considered a leading contender for the Nobel Prize. However, the Nobel Prize never came to her. Many still attribute the gender bias among male scientists to be the main reason why Vera did not win the Nobel Prize. In fact, the last woman Nobel Prize winner in physics was Maria Goeppert Mayer who won the prize back in 1963.

Levesque, in her interview continues;

“Alfred Nobel’s will describes the physics prize as recognizing ‘the most important discovery’ within the field of physics. If dark matter doesn’t fit that description, I don’t know what does.”

[Featured Image by NASA | Wikimedia Commons Public Domain]

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