An appreciation of Vera Rubin

I had thought my review of Sapiens was the last post for the year, but I saw Vera Rubin’s obituary and read some more about her and then realizing how special she was, I wanted to note her passing. She was very, very, yet quietly, special.

Dr. Rubin’s astronomical research established the fact that, at least according to our current physics, galaxies are spinning so fast that the gravity from its mass is insufficient to hold them together. The centrifugal force should lead to them flying apart like a car going way too fast around a tight curve. She measured the speed and the mass of many galaxies and found this result consistently, and then she went to the next step. Since the galaxies were not flying apart, something else was holding them together, and that something else was dark matter. Some of her colleagues, especially the females of the group, think she should have been awarded a Nobel for that, but a Nobel for physics has not been awarded to a woman for over 50 years. Imagine why, and no, it is not because none have done work meriting the award. Dr. Rubin proves that.

It is one thing to make these measurements reliably and validly, painstakingly, and another to question how to explain the results and wonder why current theory fails to do so. It is something else again to make the intuitive jump to a new understanding. In a later interview Dr. Rubin said, “Nobody ever told us all matter radiated light. We just assumed it did.” Seeing beyond such a basic assumption takes genius.

She did this work despite the gender bias in her profession. When she finally got time at Palomar observatory (the men were very busy there, you know), she found the only bathroom was marked for men. Why, when no women were around, or were they worried the cleaners might use it? She cut out a skirt and pasted it on the door’s symbol. More significantly, after completing her master’s in, I think, astrophysics successfully, she applied for the PhD program in a university near where her husband had obtained a job and was not even given an application because, well, you know why—no mystery to solve there. Later, after she had obtained her PhD somewhere else, she went to present her research and was chided by senior astronomers for some non-mysterious reason, like she was a woman and had brought her young daughter with her to the conference because she was a mother. She did this monumental work while raising 4 children. Here, here!

Such a scientist. In one later interview she said, “I’m sorry I know so little. I’m sorry we all know so little. But that’s kind of the fun, isn’t it?” Why, yes, I believe it is, and thank you for sharing the fun with us. More? A common, indeed basic assumption is that the physical laws of the universe are universal—they are the same everywhere. Dr. Rubin said, “I personally don’t believe it’s uniform and the same everywhere. That’s like saying the earth is flat.” Maybe we will never know the reality of that but consider that her work has led to the understanding that the cosmos comprises 5% atoms (those we understand well enough), 27% dark matter (our hypotheses are not proving out here despite much effort) and 68% dark energy (no clue at all unless it is some feature of string theory or multiverses or what?). As the NYT writer put it, this “subverts any illusion that astronomers might actually know what is going on.”

Dr. Rubin said that discovering some new understanding (or shedding light on our ignorance) was the best reward for doing science and that if others were using her data in the years to come to solve this mystery, that would be the greatest award. Finally she said in another interview, “In my own life, my science and my religion are separate. I’m Jewish, and so religion to me is a kind of moral code and a kind of history. I try to do my science in a moral way, and, I believe that, ideally, science should be looked upon as something that helps us understand our role in the universe.”Bravo!

Dr. Rubin died on the night of December 25, 2016, but don’t worry, she just stepped out for a minute to gather in a different light; she’ll be back. Time to travel on to this next new year. Hope for a better world and work to make it so. And send some thanks to Doctor Rubin.

Vera Rubin

Vera Rubin