December 28, 2016

Dark Matter Pioneer, Rubin ’51, Dies at 88

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Dr. Vera Rubin ’51, the astrophysicist who confirmed the existence of dark matter, died Sunday night of natural causes, according to her son, Allan Rubin. She was 88.

Rubin was the only astronomy major to graduate from Vassar College in 1948. After she was denied enrollment at Princeton University — because its doctoral program did not accept women at the time — Rubin decided to pursue her studies at Cornell University, where she earned her master’s degree in 1951. She went on to receive her Ph.D. from Georgetown University in 1954.

Rubin later became a faculty member at Georgetown, before working as a staff astronomer at the Carnegie Institute in Washington, a nonprofit scientific research center.

While studying the behavior of spiral galaxies with astronomer Kent Ford in 1974, Rubin noticed that the stars at the edge of the galaxy were moving much faster than expected. In fact, they were traveling at the same speed as the stars in the middle of the galaxy — a phenomenon that violated the accepted Newtonian gravitational theory.

Rubin concluded that the stars’ unexpected behavior could only be explained by the presence of some previously unknown factor — dark matter. Her work spurred the realization that the universe was exponentially more vast than scientists had outlined.

Dark matter has remained a mystery for decades. New ideas in theoretical physics, such as string theory and supersymmetry — which alluded to matter left over from the Big Bang — legitimized Rubin’s discovery, according to The New York Times.

Cosmologists still do not completely understand dark matter, but they now believe it makes up more than 90 percent of the universe, according to NPR. Dark matter is to the cosmos what air is to humans — “ubiquitous, necessary, unseen but felt,” Astronomy Magazine says.

“In a spiral galaxy, the ratio of dark-to-light-matter is about a factor of 10,” Rubin said in an interview posted on the Natural History Museum’s website in 2000. “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.”

In addition to this groundbreaking discovery, Rubin was also a women’s rights advocate and a role model to many female astronomers working in a male-dominated field.

Rubin was the second female astronomer to be elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the first woman allowed to observe at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory. In 1993, she was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Bill Clinton and mentioned numerous times as a candidate for the Nobel Prize.

“Vera Rubin was a national treasure as an accomplished astronomer and a wonderful role model for young scientists,” said Matthew Scott, president of the Carnegie Institution. “We are very saddened by this loss.”

Rubin is survived by her sister, her sons, five grandchildren and great-granddaughter.