Women In Astronomy

At age ten, Vera Rubin was fascinated by the stars, as she watched the night sky revolve from her north-facing bedroom in Washington D.C. Although her father was dubious about the career opportunities in astronomy, he supported her interest by helping her build her own telescope and going with her to amateur astronomers’ meetings. She got a scholarship to the prestigious women’s college Vassar, where she graduated as the only astronomy major in 1948.

She enrolled for her Master's degree at Cornell University, where she studied physics under Philip Morrison, Richard Feynman, and Hans Bethe. She completed her study in 1951, during which she made one of the first observations of deviations from the Hubble flow in the motions of galaxies. She argued that galaxies might be rotating around unknown centers, rather than simply moving outwards, as suggested by the Big Bang theory at that time. The presentation of these ideas was not well received. Rubin’s doctoral work at Georgetown University was conducted under advisor George Gamow. Her PhD thesis upon graduation in 1954 concluded that galaxies clumped together, rather than being randomly distributed through the universe. The idea that clusters of galaxies existed was not pursued seriously by others until two decades later.
In the late 1970s, Vera was perplexed when she analysed the results of her observations of the Andromeda Galaxy at the laboratories of the Carnegie Institution in Washington. The great spiral of our large galactic neighbour had a strange rotation: the stars on the edges moved as fast as the ones at the centre, which violated Newton’s laws of motion (which also regulate how the planets revolve around the Sun). That result also contradicted classical mechanics, unless there was some kind of material that could not be seen. Rubin did not know it yet, but she had found the first evidence of the existence of dark matter.
Vera Rubin loved science as a child, but as she progressed in her studies she realized that her great passion, astrophysics, was a field dominated by men. She was the only woman to graduate in astronomy at Vassar College in 1948 and was unable to study a doctorate in astronomy at Princeton simply because the institution did not accept women at that time. She did not give up, however, and eventually got a PhD. at Georgetown University. She became, albeit unintentionally, a fighter for the presence of women in science.

Rubin died on December 25, 2016, at the age of 88, without the Nobel Prize that her colleagues believed she deserved. No woman has received the Nobel Prize in Physics since 1963, when Maria Goeppert Mayer shared it with Eugene Wigner and J. Hans Jensen for their work on atomic structure and theory, and the only woman before Mayer was Marie Curie in 1903.

"In a spiral galaxy, the ratio of dark-to-light matter is about a factor of ten. That's probably a good number for the ratio of our ignorance-to-knowledge. We're out of kindergarten, but only in about third grade."

Vera Rubin

Phedias Hadjicharalambous
Cyprus Astronomy Organisation