Vera Rubin, a young astronomer at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, was on the run in the 1970s when she overturned the universe.
Seeking refuge from the controversies and ego-bashing of cosmology, she immersed herself in the pearly swirlings of spiral galaxies. For millennia, humans had presumed that when we gaze out at the universe, what we see is a fair representation of reality. Rubin, with her colleague Kent Ford, discovered that was not true.
The universe — all those galaxies and the vast spaces between — was awash with dark matter, an invisible something with sufficient gravity to mold the large scale structures of the universe.
Esteemed astronomers dismissed her findings at first.
But 50 years later, the quest to identify this “dark matter” is a burning question for particle physics and astronomy. Now the National Science Foundation will name the newest observatory joining this cause the Vera C. Rubin Observatory. The observatory, jointly financed by the NSF and the Department of Energy, under construction in Chile will begin operating in 2022. It is the first national observatory named for a woman, the NSF said.
The Rubin Observatory joins a handful of smaller astronomical facilities that have been named for women. The Maria Mitchell Observatories in Nantucket, Mass., is named after the first American woman to discover a comet. The Swope telescope, at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, is named after Henrietta Swope, who used a relationship between the luminosities and periodicities of variable stars to measure distances to galaxies.
And there is the new Annie Maunder Astrographic Telescope at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, outside London. It is named after Annie Maunder, who with her husband, Walter, made pioneering observations of the sun and solar cycle of sunspots in the late 1800s.
Heros of science, all of them.
In a field known for grandiloquent statements, Rubin was known for simple statements about how stupid we are. In an interview in 2000, she said: “In a spiral galaxy, the ratio of dark-to-light matter is about a factor of 10. 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.”
Once, summoned to a meeting with an eminent astrophysicist, Rubin arrived to be told they would have to talk in the lobby, because women were not allowed upstairs. Years later, when she finally gained access to the 200-inch Palomar telescope in California, she found that there was no women’s restroom. So she taped an outline of a woman’s skirt over the image of the man on the door, turning it into a ladies’ room.
Now there is an observatory bearing her name.