Monday, January 2, 2017

Remembering Vera Rubin [1928-2016]: Giant of Astronomy

Astronomy & Cosmology

Vera Rubin, second from the left, in red, photographed at a 2009 NASA-sponsored conference on women in astronomy. 
Photo Credit: Jay Freidlander; NASA

Vera Rubin [born Vera Florence Cooper on July 23, 1928] will be remembered as not only a great woman scientist, but as a great scientist. She was born in Philadelphia, PA; her interest in astronomy developed after the family moved to Washington, DC, when she was 10, “watching the stars wheel past her bedroom window,”  says an article in The New York Times. Rubin’s contribution to astronomy, including her contribution to understanding “dark matter” should prove valuable and keep astronomers, cosmologists and physicists busy for years to come.

But it all came down to the stars; Rubin was viewed as an expert in the movement of galaxies. She spent most of her working life, since 1965, at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM) at the Carnegie Institution in Washington. Rubin died on December 25, 2016; she was 88.

In "Vera Rubin: 1928–2016," (December 26, 2016) Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist and cosmologist, writes in Scientific American:
Rubin studied astronomy as an undergraduate at Vassar and wanted to enroll into graduate school in Princeton, but women weren’t allowed into the graduate astronomy program until 1975, something that is truly remarkable, and despicable, given the important role women have played in astronomy in the past century. After completing a master’s degree in physics at Cornell, where she studied with giants like Richard Feynman and Hans Bethe, and also with the brilliant and poetic Philip Morrison, she moved to Georgetown University, where she completed her Ph.D. in 1954 under another physics wunderkind, George Gamow. During that time she took her classes at night, while her husband waited in the car because she didn’t know how to drive.
Her early research involved the motion of galaxies, demonstrating that addition to their uniform recession due to the Hubble expansion of the Universe, most galaxies have small peculiar motions that are due to their gravitational clumping into clusters. During this time she helped support her family, raising 4 children while teaching part time at Montgomery County community college and at Georgetown, eventually joining the faculty at Georgetown in 1962. She achieved enough recognition during this period to be the first woman allowed to use the instruments at Palomar Observatory, in 1965, and in that year she moved to the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, where she remained for the rest of her career.
Rubin’s biggest breakthrough occurred a few years later, when she joined collaborator Kent Ford—with whom she had earlier collaborated on the studying the relative motion of the Milky Way galaxy compared to a large sample of distant galaxies, suggesting that the Milky had a significant velocity relative to the background Hubble flow—in the study of the motion of stars and gas in the nearby Andromeda Galaxy. Five years after joining the DTM Rubin and Ford reported that the rotation of Andromeda was anomalous. Its outskirts were rotating so fast that it should have flown apart, if the only mass holding it together was the matter that was visible to telescopes.
Rubin raised four children, including a daughter, Judy Young, also an astronomer, who died in 2014. Her husband was Robert J. Rubin, a mathematician and physicist, whom she met while both were graduate students at Cornell University. They married in 1948 and the marriage lasted until his death in 2008, aged 81, Vera Rubin is survived, the NYT article says, “by her sister, Ruth Cooper Burg, a judge in Washington; her sons, Allan, David and Karl; five grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.” All of her children earned PHDs either in mathematics or the natural sciences, itself an accomplishment. 

After Pope John Paul II appointed Rubin to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in 1996, she was quoted in an article that science for her has a dedicated purpose: “In my own life,” said Rubin, “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.” I could not agree more.

For more, go to [ScientificAmerican].

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