The Discovery of Black Matter in Space

Vera Rubin was born in Philadelphia to parents who were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Her father was an engineer who built her a telescope when Vera expressed an interest in astronomy. Vera obtained a bachelor’s degree in astronomy from Vassar. She enrolled for a graduate degree at Cornell after Princeton rejected her based upon her gender.

During her master’s research, she found a contradiction to established theory. She was denied permission to present her work at the American Astronomical Society, and her work was forgotten.

Vera then pursued a PhD at Georgetown. Her research was so controversial that there was no follow-up on her work for two decades. She experienced sexism in other areas beyond her research. She was not allowed to see her advisor in his office.

After graduation, Vera had a number of academic problems. She often worked from home so she could care for her four children. She tried to avoid controversial research topics, but the more she explored the movement of galaxies, existing theories just didn’t hold up. Stars were moving faster than existing laws predicted, and something must be present in space to keep them from flying away. But that something couldn’t be seen. Vera postulated that dark matter must be present in space. Again, the male astronomy community was in doubt. But over time, the males began to accept her work.

While Vera achieved recognition in her later career, she never won the Nobel Prize which many thought she deserved. Her discovery of the concept of dark matter has been compared to the work of Copernicus who was thought to be the father of astronomy. Vera is given credit for opening up new dimensions of astronomy.

Vera was clearly renowned for her breakthroughs in the study of space. But she became a hidden hero for her life’s work in advocating for women to pursue science careers. She showed how a woman can be both a scientist and a mother. All four of her children obtained PhD’s. She became an advocate for women to be included on review panels for research. The saddest aspect of her life she said was how few women were selected for the National Academy of Sciences. She lived a life of joy from being curious, and that’s her contribution to all of us.

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“You are a lucky young lady for you will someday know what kind of material constitutes the dark matter. But if you are especially lucky, you may puzzle over some new questions we cannot now even imagine asking.” – Vera Rubin (in a letter to a fifth grader)

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