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The world lost an amazing person on the night of Christmas 2016 . . . well, two amazing people, but this video isn’t about George Michael. No, I want to talk a little bit about Vera Rubin, an astrophysicist who published the first groundbreaking evidence of dark matter when she figured out why entire galaxies can spin around so quickly without flinging their stars into space.
Rubin’s death, at the age of 88, is tragic not just because she was a sharp, insightful mind, but also because that puts an end to the hopes of astrophysicists everywhere that Rubin might finally be honored for her contributions with a Nobel Prize. They’re not awarded posthumously, so they may well continue their incredible streak of 53 years without awarding a prize in physics to a woman.
In fact, more men named “Peter” have won the Nobel Prize in physics than women. It’s not entirely surprising considering that men named Peter weren’t oppressed for several millennia and only permitted to formally study the sciences in the past hundred years or so, but the discovery of dark matter is so fundamental to the study of astrophysics that it’s stupefying that even Vera Rubin has gone so many years without recognition. Not to take away from blue LEDs — my Christmas tree looks amazing this year — but this really is a huge oversight that now can never be corrected.
For her part, Rubin was pretty cool about being repeatedly snubbed for the prize despite being a favorite since the 1980s. She told Discovery in 1990, “My numbers mean more to me than my name. If astronomers are still using my data years from now, that’s my greatest compliment.”
Around that time, she also gave a very long and fascinating interview about her life to Alan Lightman for the American Institute of Physics, which you can read in full including archived answers that weren’t originally made public. Lightman asked Rubin about what it was like to give her Cornell thesis about the rotation of galaxies. Off-record (but in the archives), she explains how a male colleague tried to put someone else’s name on her thesis, and then give the thesis for her because she was due to give birth a few weeks prior. She declined and gave the talk herself despite having just given birth.
That interview is also fascinating because she mentions that it never occurred to her that as a woman she couldn’t be an astronomer, because she admired Maria Mitchell. Lightman doesn’t know who Mitchell is, and Rubin admonishes him because she wanted Mitchell to be as famous as Ben Franklin. Mitchell was the first American female astronomer, working in the late 19th century. She was also the first professor of astronomy at Vassar College, which is why Rubin decided to attend Vassar.
As an aside, Mitchell was also an outspoken opponent of slavery and a suffragist who co-founded the American Association for the Advancement of Women.
Vera Rubin’s history really speaks to the power of remembering and honoring female scientists who would otherwise be forgotten — fame may be fleeting, but a little fame might help the next generation of astrophysicists be inspired. And research shows that we’re more likely to feel we belong somewhere when we see people we identify with in those places.
So she may never get a Nobel prize, but I hope that Vera Rubin does achieve the fame necessary to continue inspiring little girls to look at the stars and wonder what’s out there.