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Vera Rubin in the pages of Physics Today

27 December 2016

The late astronomer’s contributions to the magazine reveal her impressive research, advocacy for women in science, and sharp wit.

Vera Rubin, whose research charting stellar velocities in galaxies solidified the case for the existence of dark matter, died on 25 December at age 88.

For years Rubin’s name has routinely popped up in the science press each October, with columnists justifiably expressing disbelief and frustration that she and colleague Kent Ford hadn’t yet received the Nobel Prize in Physics. But it will be a shame if people remember Rubin only as the female astronomer who never won an arbitrary prize. Several articles and letters to the editor by Rubin in Physics Today illustrate the extraordinary combination of qualities that made her such a great scientist and role model.

Vera Rubin

Vera Rubin looks through a telescope at Vassar College in 1947. Credit: Vassar College, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

In 2006 Rubin wrote a column that summarized her seminal research on the orbital velocities of stars in the Andromeda (M31) galaxy. She described baking photographic plates for 72 hours to increase their sensitivity and taking turns with Ford guiding the telescope: “I thought I guided best, and would not relinquish my turn; Kent behaved the same way.”

Interspersed between the details of her work is the sense of wonder she experienced during the process. “Often I wondered if an astronomer in M31 was observing us,” she wrote. “Always I wished we could exchange views.” Rubin never lost the inquisitiveness that led her as a child to stare out her bedroom window and chart meteor trails.

Rubin wasn’t afraid to point the finger at those promoting sexism—intentionally or unintentionally—in science. In 1982 she wrote a letter to the editor in response to an article that gave advice for presenting at American Physical Society (APS) meetings. Although APS secretary Karl Darrow had written the guide in 1951, Physics Today editors had decided that “all of the instructions given by Darrow for presenting a papers [sic] at an APS meeting still are as appropriate today as they were when they were written.”

In her letter Rubin shot down that poor editorial judgment. She noted that in an article peppered with he, him, and his, Darrow used a female pronoun only in an analogy of a dancer falling on her face. “At least the falling dancer could have been male,” she wrote.

Another letter that Rubin submitted in 1978 further clarifies what she felt was the impact of turning a blind eye to the assumptions made in Darrow’s article and many other scientific publications. “In a very real sense, we are what we say,” she wrote. “And what much of the scientific community appears to be saying to young women is that it is male.” Judging by recent events, particularly within the astronomy field, it’s clear that the message from the scientific community still needs a lot of work.

Although it’s a travesty that Rubin never won the Nobel, it’s perhaps more disappointing that she won’t get to learn the nature of the mysterious substance she indirectly observed decades ago. As she wrote in her 2006 column, “No one can predict the surprises that surely lie ahead as we attempt to shed light on nature’s dark secret.”

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