Vera Ru­bin

Pi­o­neer­ing as­tronomer who con­firmed the ex­is­tence of dark mat­ter

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - Vera Ru­bin, born July 23 1928. Died De­cem­ber 25, 2016

AS A child she would spend hours gaz­ing at me­teor show­ers wheel­ing past her bed­room win­dow and at 10, she built her first tele­scope with rolled linoleum. The study of the uni­verse was Vera Ru­bin’s call­ing and she pur­sued it with ab­so­lute de­ter­mi­na­tion. Girls were not sup­posed to study science, let alone astronomy but Ru­bin, who has died aged 88, not only did both but her work helped change the way we view the cos­mos, blaz­ing a trail for women sci­en­tists along the way.

She didn’t have it easy: for years she was shunned by the ex­clu­sively male astro­physics élite and her work was den­i­grated by other as­tronomers. So Ru­bin de­cided to find “a prob­lem that no­body would bother me about.” It would re­sult in the dis­cov­ery of dark mat­ter, the in­vis­i­ble ma­te­rial that makes up more than 90 per cent of the uni­verse.

A the­ory about in­vis­i­ble miss­ing mass had first been put for­ward back in 1933 by a Swiss as­tro­physi­cist, Fritz Zwicky but had never been sci­en­tif­i­cally backed up. So Ru­bin de­cided to make it her prob­lem. To­gether with Kent Ford, a col­league at the Carnegie In­sti­tu­tion which she had joined in 1965, she started study­ing the An­dromeda gal­axy look­ing at the or­bital speed of stars at dif­fer­ent dis­tances from the cen­tre of the gal­axy.

Ac­cord­ing to New­ton’s the­ory, the fur­ther an ob­ject is, the slower it or­bits: in our own so­lar sys­tem the dis­tant Pluto takes 248 years and the much closer Mer­cury a mere 88 day to go around the sun.

How­ever, Ru­bin and Ford found that stars far from the cen­tre of the gal­axy trav­elled as fast as those near it. Ei­ther New­ton’s the­ory was wrong or there was some other in­vis­i­ble mass out there speed­ing up the stars. Ru­bin and Ford stud­ied sev­eral more gal­ax­ies in the next few years and dis­cov­ered that each spi­ral gal­axy is em­bed­ded in a “halo” of dark mat­ter which does not emit light, con­tain­ing five to 10 times as much mass as the part em­a­nat­ing light. What is vis­i­ble to us is just the tip of the cos­mic ice­berg.

Vera Florence Cooper was born in Philadel­phia to Jewish im­mi­grants. Her fa­ther Philip, was a Lithua­nian. Born Pesach Kobchef­ski, he worked as an en­gi­neer at Bell Tele­phone; her mother Rose Ap­ple­baum also worked at Bell un­til her mar­riage. The fam­ily moved to Wash­ing­ton when Vera was ten.

Vera chose to study at Vas­sar Col­lege be­cause Maria Mitchell, the first pro­fes­sional fe­male as­tronomer in the US, had taught there. She grad­u­ated, the sole as­tronomer in her class, in 1948, the year she mar­ried Robert Ru­bin, a grad­u­ate stu­dent in phys­i­cal chem­istry at Cor­nell whom she would later de­scribe as her great­est ally.

Af­ter be­ing snubbed by Prince­ton — whose astro­physics depart­ment did not ad­mit women and de­clined even to send her the course cat­a­logue — she chose Cor­nell for her mas­ter’s de­gree. She fol­lowed it with a PhD from Ge­orge­town Univer­sity in Wash­ing­ton where the Ru­bins had moved af­ter Robert‘s work took them to Bal­ti­more.

Bring­ing up a fam­ily while con­tin­u­ing to study and re­search was tough, but even harder was carv­ing a path in an environment where women were just wives. Yet Ru­bin, with fam­ily sup­port, never wa­vered.

Robert would drive her to Ge­orge­town Univer­sity, wait in the car and drive her back while her par­ents babysat. They once drove Vera and her new baby all the way to Philadel­phia to al­low her to present her mas­ter’s the­sis to the Amer­i­can As­tro­nom­i­cal So­ci­ety — who gave the 22 year-old a luke­warm re­cep­tion.

But Ru­bin was un­de­terred and con­tin­ued to com­bine part-time teach­ing and re­search with rais­ing four chil­dren. She re­fused let dis­crim­i­na­tion stop her.

She fa­mously had to bat­tle to gain ac­cess to the tele­scope at the Mount Palo­mar Ob­ser­va­tory from which women were banned, sup­pos­edly to al­low male as­tronomers to iso­late them­selves from their fam­i­lies. When she fi­nally be­came its first au­tho­rised fe­male user, she dis­cov­ered there were no ladies lava­to­ries so she fash­ioned a skirt out of pa­per and stuck it on to the men’s toi­let door.

Ru­bin con­sis­tently fought for a big­ger role for women in sciences and con­ducted a long-run­ning bat­tle with the Na­tional Acad­emy of Sciences. In 1996 she be­came only the sec­ond woman to be awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal As­tro­nom­i­cal So­ci­ety. Of­ten men­tioned as a pos­si­ble No­bel win­ner, she wasn’t in­ter­ested: “Fame is fleet­ing,” she re­marked. “If as­tronomers are still us­ing my data years from now, that’s the great­est com­pli­ment.”

She also saw no con­flict be­tween her Jewish faith and science: ”I’m Jewish and 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.”

Robert Ru­bin died in 2008. A daugh­ter, Judy Young, died in 2014. She is sur­vived by her sis­ter Ruth Cooper Burg, her sons Al­lan, David and Karl; five grand­chil­dren and a great-grand­daugh­ter. JULIE CARBONARA


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