Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, January 16, 2017

Vera Rubin, the "Mother of Dark Matter"

Vera Cooper Rubin (National Academy of Science medal, 16 January 2004)

The American astronomer Vera Rubin (born  23 July 1928) died on Christmas day of this year, and unlike so many women about whom I've posted over the years since beginning this blog, her death (and, more important, her life) did not go unnoticed. 

Vera Rubin, 2009
Major news outlets highlighted her death, with sources like The New York Times and The Washington Post publishing significant stories prominently in both print and digital editions. PBS and NPR also broadcast stories about Rubin's life and work, as did the BBC, major American networks, and online sites like Slate and The Huffington Post.

Mashable, the self-styled "global, multi-platform media and entertainment company," eulogized her as a "badass astronomer and feminist icon," while the more restrained Astronomy Magazine confined itself to calling her a "pioneering physicist." 

Rubin's great contribution was to the theory of dark matter--and after reading all the announcements of her death, I had to admit to myself that my background in literature and history did't really give me the ability to grasp the concepts with which she was working, much less to assess her work. I'll let Dennis Overbye, writing for the Times, give you a sense of her accomplishments: through her work, she "helped usher in a Copernican-scale change in cosmic consciousness, namely the realization that what astronomers always saw and thought was the universe is just the visible tip of a lumbering iceberg of mystery."

What I did notice, in every article, was the reference to Rubin as "breaking" or (in the words of the Sarah Kaplan, writing for the Post, "toppl[ing]") gender barriers, a woman who (in Overbye's words), "opened doors for women," and (in Kaplan's words), "changed science." 

Well, okay, I guess. But what also became increasingly clear, as I worked my way through the pages on Google, was that for all this talk of breaking (or toppling) barriers, changing science, and "clear[ing] the way for countless other women," Rubin faced the same old same old: barriers, obstacles, sexism, suspicion, and ridicule.

And I also noticed something else. Once I got past the most recent mentions of Rubin, all written on the occasion of her death, I found an array of earlier pieces, written during her lifetime, and written recently, showing how little things had changed even for this most brilliant of women.

In noting Rubin's death, Rachel Feltman, writing for Popular Science, made the point in the title of her piece: Rubin was "the woman the Nobel Prize forgot." She was never recognized in this most prestigious forum for "her work on dark matter."

Last year, in a June 2016 article in Astronomy MagazineSarah Scoles asked, "This famous astronomer carved herself a well-deserved place in history, so why doesn’t the Nobel committee see it that way?" 

And in October 2016, writing in Scientific American, Jesse Emspack asked, "Are the Nobel Prizes Missing Female Scientists?" Here's Emspack's answer to that question: "A total of 203 people have won the Nobel prize in physics, but only two were women (Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963). Many scientists say those numbers point to a fundamental problem with the prizes and how they are awarded."*
Vera Rubin, photo from the
National Space Grant Foundation website,
distinguished service award, 2010

There was a Facebook page, "A Nobel Prize for Vera Rubin" created in 2015. Even today, two weeks after Rubin's death, the page has a mere 220 likes. The page was part of a "grassroots campaign" to garner recognition for Rubin's work. There is/was also a Twitter hashtag: #NobelforVeraRubin. 

In reading these pieces, I note that Rubin was something of a "favorite" for winning a Nobel as early as the 1980s--and that in 1990, in an interview in Discovery, her response to the question was diplomatic: "My numbers mean more to me than my name. If astronomers are still using my data years from now, that's my greatest compliment." 

I won't add more complaints or bitchiness here--that doesn't seem to be in the spirit of Rubin herself. And I won't list her many accomplishments and awards--you can easily find them for yourself.

But I will quote here from the commencement address she delivered at Berkeley some twenty years ago, on 17 May 1996. This seems to represent the true spirit of Vera Rubin and her own words offer the best tribute to the woman herself:
And now, you must turn your chairs to face the future. You are concerned tonight with more than the fate of atoms. You need jobs, admissions to graduate schools, research support; you want a healthy planet, space, choices. Individually, you will be called by many names: spouse, partner, teacher, professor, writer, representative, president, CEO, doctor, judge, regent. Some will be called scientists. For those of you who teach science, I hope that you will welcome, as students, those who do NOT intend to be scientists, as well as those who DO. We need senators who have studied physics and representatives who understand ecology.
And for those of you who choose to be scientists, I have one piece of advice. Don’t give up. Science is hard and demanding, but each of you must believe that you can succeed. It may seem unlikely tonight, but there is not one among you who cannot make important, major contributions to the world of science. At my commencement on May 17, 48 years ago, the probability that I would be addressing you tonight surely was zero.

In addition to the obituaries, I recommend Lisa Randall's op-ed, "Why Vera Rubin Deserved a Nobel, published in the 4 January 2017 New York Times (click here).

*The numbers for other fields aren't much better. Emspack's is only one of numerous assessments of the dearth of women among Nobel laureates:
Physics isn't the only field with a dearth of female Nobel laureates. According to the Nobel Committee website, 171 people have won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, and only four have been women: Marie Curie (1911), her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie (1935), Dorothy Hodgkin (1964) and Ada Yonath (2009).
Women have fared a bit better in medicine and literature. Out of the 211 total recipients of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, 12 have been women. And of the 112 total recipients of the Nobel Prize in literature, 15 have been women. Women have picked up 16 Nobel Peace Prizes of the 129 that have been awarded to either individuals or organizations. The Nobel Prize in economics, which has existed only since 1969, has honored only one woman of the 76 laureates.

Update, 11 January 2019: The National Science Foundation has just renamed its newest observatory in honor of Vera Rubin. For Dennis Overbye's "Vera Rubin Gets a Telescope of Her Own," New York Times, click here

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