Western Slope Skies - 2/14/14

Feb 28, 2014

This is a continuing series on Women in Astronomy.  Today, we meet Vera Rubin.

Vera Rubin was born in 1928 and graduated from Vassar College.  Much of her career was filled with battling existing stereotypes of women scientists.  She was denied admission to astronomy graduate school at Harvard, because she was a woman.  

Vera applied to Cornell and received her Master's degree in 1951 under the direction of Richard Feynman and Hans Bethe, both Nobel laureates in physics.

She received a PHD in 1954, working for George Gamow.  She studied galaxy formation and properties.  She theorized that galaxies were not evenly distributed throughout the Universe, but formed in clumps.  This theory was not taken seriously for 20 years, but is now the commonly accepted structure for the Universe.

In 1962, Vera was the first woman given research access to the Palomar Observatory.

In the 1960s, Vera Rubin studied the rotational rate of the Andromeda Galaxy.  In 1970, she presented data indicating that, based on the mass, its rotation should tear it apart.  

Additional work in the 1970s corroborated this evidence for other galaxies.  Rubin theorized that there was additional unseen mass in the galaxies that held them together.  This is now known as Dark Matter and is still one of the key mysteries in astrophysics.

Vera Rubin has received numerous awards and in 1996, received the Gold Medal Award from the Royal Astronomical Society.  She was the first woman to receive the award since Caroline Herschel in 1828.  

The third woman to  receive the Gold Medal was Margaret Burbidge in 2005 and will be the topic of our next Women in Astronomy feature.

Vera Rubin is retired, but continues to be a force for recognition of women in science.