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Vera Cooper Rubin: Shedding Light on Dark Matter

[ photo: Vera Cooper Rubin ]

Shedding Light on Dark Matter

When Vera Cooper Rubin '48 told her high school physics teacher that she'd been accepted to Vassar, he said, "That's great. As long as you stay away from science, it should be okay."

Ignoring him, and the countless others like him, was truly a great idea.

Now a senior researcher at the Carnegie Institute's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Rubin is credited with proving the existence of "dark matter," or nonluminous mass, and forever altering our notions of the universe. Dark matter is matter that can't be detected by its emitted radiation but whose existence can be inferred from its gravitational effects on stars and galaxies. Exactly how much of the universe is composed of dark matter is still very much an open question. Shortly after Rubin's discovery, estimates ran as high as 95%. Now, other discoveries, including the discoveries of another Vassar alum, John Carlstrom, seem to indicate that "ordinary matter" (the earth and stars and such) comprises about 5% of the universe; dark matter, another 30%; and the remaining 65%, something called dark energy, about which little is known.

Rubin graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1948, the only astronomy major in her class at Vassar, and went on to receive her master's from Cornell in 1950 (after being turned away by Princeton because they did not allow women in their astronomy program) and her Ph.D. from Georgetown in 1954. Rubin made a name for herself not only as an astronomer but also as a woman pioneer; she fought through severe criticisms of her work to eventually be elected to the National Academy of Sciences (at the time, only three women astronomers were members) and to win the highest American award in science, the National Medal of Science. However, it is not the fame that Rubin values: "My numbers mean more to me than my name. If astronomers are still using my data years from now, that's my greatest compliment."

VV December 1997
Photo credit: Archives and Special Collections