Vera Cooper Rubin set the stage for women astronomers. She burst onto the astronomy scene with her 1954 doctoral dissertation on the distribution of galaxies and a decade later became the first female observer ever appointed to the Palomar Observatory in southern California. In her current tenure at the Carnegie Institution, Rubin has investigated the motion of galaxies, as well as the existence of large amounts of the invisible substance called dark matter in our area of the universe. By example, as well as through outspoken advocacy, Rubin continues to widen opportunities for women and girls in all fields of science.
Vera Cooper Rubin was born on July 23, 1928, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to electrical engineer Philip Cooper and the former Rose Applebaum. At the age of ten, Rubin's family moved to Washington, D.C., where she attended public high school. As a teenager Rubin informed her father that she wanted to be an astronomer. He helped her build a telescope and took her to meetings of the local amateur astronomers club. He also offered advice that she take up something more practical, such as mathematics. Following her graduation from high school, Rubin received a scholarship to Vassar College, which was then a women's school.
Rubin studied science and mathematics at Vassar and graduated in 1948. The same year, she married physicist Robert Rubin, who was at the time a graduate student at Cornell University. Rubin subsequently went through a master-s program at Cornell. She claims to have found the atmosphere there rather discouraging to women and noted that, had she stayed at Cornell, she "would have been too intimidated to become an astronomer."
After graduating in 1951, Rubin moved with her husband to Washington, D.C., where their first child was born. Rather than studying astronomy, as she had planned, she suddenly found herself at home, changing diapers. Before long, however, Rubin enrolled in a Ph.D. program in astronomy at Georgetown University. There she studied under the influential Russian-American physicist and big-bang theorist George Gamow. Her dissertation, which pointed out how galaxies tend to be clumped together throughout space, was initially ignored, although its importance was finally acknowledged in the 1970s.
By 1954, the Rubins had two children and two doctoral degrees between them. They eventually had a total of four children, three of whom are now scientists, and one, a mathematician. Rubin's daughter, Judy Young, is a professor of astronomy at the University of Massachusetts.
Rubin's Career at DTM
Rubin next taught for one year at a junior college before being hired at Georgetown. She accepted a position there in 1955 as a research associate and in 1962 was promoted to assistant professor. In 1965, she left Georgetown to join the staff of Palomar Observatory. Her next career move was to the Washington, D.C.-based Carnegie Institution's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM), where she remains to this day.
The Carnegie Institution is a private foundation, begun in 1902 by multimillionaire Andrew Carnegie, to support scientific research. The DTM was founded in 1904 to study the Earth's magnetic properties. Over the last several decades, astronomical research has dominated this department's agenda.
Rubin's research at the DTM has focused primarily on two areas: galactic dynamics (the motion of galaxies) and dark matter. In the first area, Rubin has studied the mutual attraction of stars within a galaxy, the forces that hold a galaxy together. She has also studied the formation of spiral galaxies out of moving clouds of gas and dust.
The realization that both bright and dark parts of a galaxy contain equal amounts of matter led Rubin to conclude that invisible, or "dark" matter, is present. She built on the observations of Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky, who first speculated that dark matter exists. Astronomers now believe that dark matter is a "cosmic glue," holding together rapidly spinning galaxies and controlling the rate at which the universe expands.
Rubin's career has hardly been limited to her post at the Carnegie Institution. In fact, she has to her credit a long list of publications, editorial appointments, organizational posts, and visiting professorships. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1981 and has sat on Harvard University's astronomical committee.
Rubin has also devoted much time and energy to encouraging women and girls in scientific pursuits. To this end, Rubin is a member of American Women in Science and has served as a visiting professor at Vassar College. Rubin has also written a children's book on astronomy entitled: My Grandmother Is an Astronomer, in which she explains the role of an astronomer to a young girl.