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Vera Rubin

Vera Rubin
Vera Rubin measuring spectra, c. 1970
Born (1928-07-23) July 23, 1928 (age 87)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Citizenship American
Nationality American
Fields Astronomy
Institutions Georgetown University, Carnegie Institution of Washington
Alma mater Vassar College, Cornell University, Georgetown University
Thesis  (1954)
Doctoral advisor Template:If empty
Other academic advisors Richard Feynman, Hans Bethe, Philip Morrison
Notable students Sandra Faber
Known for Galaxy rotation problem
Dark Matter
Rubin-Ford effect
Notable awards Bruce Medal, Dickson Prize in Science, Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, National Medal of Science

Vera (Cooper) Rubin (born (1928-07-23)July 23, 1928) is an American astronomer who pioneered work on galaxy rotation rates. She uncovered the discrepancy between the predicted angular motion of galaxies and the observed motion, by studying galactic rotation curves. This phenomenon became known as the galaxy rotation problem.

Background and education

Vera Rubin was born in Philadelphia and lived in Washington, D.C. when she was 10 years old. It was in Washington, D.C. that she started to develop an interest in astronomy.[1] Vera Rubin's father, Philip Cooper, was an electrical engineer, born in Vilnius, Lithuania as Pesach Kobchefski. Her mother, Rose Applebaum, originally came from Bessarabia, and worked for Bell Telephone Company calculating mileage for telephone lines. Rubin has an older sister named Ruth Cooper Burg, who was an administrative judge in the United States Department of Defense.[2] Rubin earned her BA degree at Vassar College and attempted to enroll at Princeton but never received their graduate catalog, as women there were not allowed in the graduate astronomy program until 1975.[3]

She instead enrolled for her Master's degree at Cornell University, where she studied physics under Philip Morrison, Richard Feynman, and Hans Bethe. She completed her study in 1951, during which she made one of the first observations of deviations from the Hubble flow in the motions of galaxies. She argued that galaxies might be rotating around unknown centers, rather than simply moving outwards, as suggested by the Big Bang theory at that time. The presentation of these ideas was not well received. Rubin’s doctoral work at Georgetown University was conducted under advisor George Gamow. Her PhD thesis upon graduation in 1954 concluded that galaxies clumped together, rather than being randomly distributed through the universe. The idea that clusters of galaxies existed was not pursued seriously by others until two decades later.[4]

Scientific work

After her graduation, Rubin taught at Montgomery County Junior College,[5] and also worked at Georgetown University as a research assistant, and in 1962 became an assistant professor there.[6] Also in 1965, she became the first woman allowed to use the instruments at the Palomar Observatory. Prior to this, women had not been authorized to access the facilities.[7] In 1965 she also secured a position at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington [8] and has worked there as an astronomer since that time. Rubin is currently a Senior Fellow at the DTM, and her work area is described as "Galactic and extragalactic dynamics; large-scale structure and dynamics of the universe."[9] Since 1978, Vera has researched and analyzed over 200 galaxies.

Galaxy rotation problem

Rubin began work which was close to the topic of her previously controversial thesis regarding galaxy clusters, with instrument maker Kent Ford, making hundreds of observations. The Rubin–Ford effect is named after them, and has been the subject of intense discussion ever since it was reported.[10] It describes the motion of the Milky Way relative to a sample of galaxies at distances of about 150 to 300 Mly, and suggests that it is different from the Milky Way's motion relative to the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Wishing to avoid controversy, Rubin moved her area of research to the study of rotation curves of galaxies, commencing with the Andromeda Galaxy. She pioneered work on galaxy rotation rates, and uncovered the discrepancy between the predicted angular motion of galaxies and the observed motion, by studying galaxy rotation curves. Galaxies are rotating so fast that they would fly apart, if the gravity of their constituent stars was all that was holding them together. But they are not flying apart, and therefore, a huge amount of unseen mass must be holding them together. This phenomenon became known as the galaxy rotation problem. Her calculations showed that galaxies must contain at least ten times as much dark mass as can be accounted for by the visible stars.[11] Attempts to explain the galaxy rotation problem led to the theory of dark matter.

Dark matter

In the 1970s Rubin obtained the strongest evidence up to that time for the existence of dark matter.[12] The nature of dark matter is as yet unknown, but its presence is crucial to understanding the future of the universe.[13]

Currently, the theory of dark matter is the most popular candidate for explaining the galaxy rotation problem. The alternative theory of MOND (Modified Newtonian Dynamics) has little support in the community. Rubin, however, prefers the MOND approach, stating "If I could have my pick, I would like to learn that Newton's laws must be modified in order to correctly describe gravitational interactions at large distances. That's more appealing than a universe filled with a new kind of sub-nuclear particle."[14]

Awards and honors

As of 9 June 2013, Rubin has co-authored 114 peer reviewed research papers. She also served on the board of trustees for Science Service, now known as Society for Science & the Public, from 2002-2008.

Named after her


Rubin has been married since 1948 to Robert Rubin,[30] whom she met while he was a fellow graduate student at Cornell University majoring in physical chemistry. All four of her children have earned PhDs in the natural sciences or mathematics: David (1950), PhD geology, a geologist with the US Geological Survey; Judith Young (1952), PhD cosmic-ray physics, an astronomer at the University of Massachusetts; Karl (1956), PhD mathematics, a mathematician at the University of California at Irvine; and Allan (1960), PhD geology, a geologist at Princeton University.

Motivated by her own battle to gain credibility as a woman astronomer, Rubin continues to encourage young girls to pursue their dreams of investigating the universe. Overcoming discouraging comments on her choice of study was a constant challenge, but she persevered, supported by her father and, later, her husband and family. In addition to astronomy, Rubin has been a force for greater recognition of women in the sciences. She has advocated for more women in the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), on review panels, and in academic searches. She says that she has fought with the NAS, but she continues to be dissatisfied with the number of women who are elected each year. She states that it is the saddest part of her life and says, "Thirty years ago, I thought everything was possible."[31]

Of her potential legacy, Rubin remarked : “Fame is fleeting, my numbers mean more to me than my name. If astronomers are still using my data years from now, that’s my greatest compliment.”[32]

Religious views

Rubin is an observant Jew, and sees no conflict between science and religion. In an interview, she stated: "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."[33]



  • Rubin, Vera C.; Ford, W. Kent, Jr. (1970). "Rotation of the Andromeda Nebula from a Spectroscopic Survey of Emission Regions". The Astrophysical Journal 159: 379. Bibcode:1970ApJ...159..379R. doi:10.1086/150317. 
  • Rubin, V. C.; Roberts, M. S.; Graham, J. A.; Ford, W. K., Jr.; Thonnard, N. (1976). "Motion of the Galaxy and the local group determined from the velocity anisotropy of distant SC I galaxies. I - The data". The Astronomical Journal 81: 687. Bibcode:1976AJ.....81..687R. doi:10.1086/111942. 
  • Rubin, V. C.; Thonnard, N.; Ford, W. K., Jr. (1980). "Rotational properties of 21 SC galaxies with a large range of luminosities and radii, from NGC 4605 /R = 4kpc/ to UGC 2885 /R = 122 kpc/". The Astrophysical Journal 238: 471. Bibcode:1980ApJ...238..471R. doi:10.1086/158003. 
  • Rubin, V. C.; Burstein, D.; Ford, W. K., Jr.; Thonnard, N. (1985). "Rotation velocities of 16 SA galaxies and a comparison of Sa, Sb, and SC rotation properties". The Astrophysical Journal 289: 81. Bibcode:1985ApJ...289...81R. doi:10.1086/162866. 
  • Rubin, Vera C.; Graham, J. A.; Kenney, Jeffrey D. P. (1992). "Cospatial counterrotating stellar disks in the Virgo E7/S0 galaxy NGC 4550". The Astrophysical Journal 394: L9. Bibcode:1992ApJ...394L...9R. doi:10.1086/186460. 
  • Rubin, Vera C. (1995). "A Century of Galaxy Spectroscopy". The Astrophysical Journal 451: 419. Bibcode:1995ApJ...451..419R. doi:10.1086/176230. 


  • Rubin, Vera (1997). Bright galaxies, dark matters. Woodbury, NY: AIP Press. ISBN 1-56396-231-4. 

In popular culture

  • Rubin is featured in an animated segment of the 13th and final episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
  • Vera Rubin can be seen on the BBC documentary Most of Our Universe is Missing.[34]
  • In the first episode of the 22nd Season of The Simpsons, Milhouse lists "Vers Rubin" (sic) as his pick for the 2010 Physics Nobel prize.


  1. ^ "Vera Rubin". USAScienceFestival. USA Science & Engineering Festiva. Retrieved 17 December 2014. 
  2. ^ Oral History Transcript — Dr. Vera Cooper Rubin
  3. ^ "Vera Rubin and Dark Matter". Retrieved 2011-03-21. 
  4. ^ Vera Cooper Rubin
  5. ^ Montgomery College
  6. ^ "Rubin, Vera Cooper" CWP
  7. ^ Mount Wilson and Palomar
  8. ^ Vera C. Rubin
  9. ^ Faculty Members
  10. ^ 2.4.1. The Rubin-Ford Effect
  11. ^ First observational evidence of dark matter
  12. ^ Women in Aviation and Space History
  13. ^ Astronomers try to unravel a force greater than gravity that will determine the fate of the cosmos
  14. ^ "13 things that do not make sense". New Scientist. Retrieved 2010-10-19. 
  15. ^ EXPLORE THE UNIVERSE: Dark Universe : Vera Rubin
  16. ^ Weizmann Women & Science Award
  17. ^ Vera Rubin, Noted Astronomer, Wins International Cosmology Prize
  18. ^ Vera Rubin Wins 2003 ASP Bruce Medal
  19. ^ James Craig Watson Medal
  20. ^ Carnegie’s Vera Rubin to Receive Richtmyer Award
  21. ^ Dickson Prize HONOR
  22. ^ Vera Rubin (1928– )
  23. ^ Lifetime Achievement Award
  24. ^ Vera C. Rubin Carnegie Institution of Washington
  25. ^ Women's History Month | Vera Rubin
  26. ^ American Philosophical Society Member History
  27. ^ Henry Norris Russell Lectureship
  28. ^ Jansky Prize - The Karl G. Jansky Lectureship
  29. ^ General Assemblies & Administrative Meetings
  30. ^ 2002 Cosmology Prize
  31. ^ Laureate Profile
  32. ^ Women in Science Hall of Fame
  33. ^ "Pontifical Science Academy Banks on Stellar Cast". December 1–7, 1996. Retrieved 2010-10-19. 
  34. ^ "Most of Our Universe is Missing". BBC Science & Nature: TV & Radio Follow-Up. BBC. Retrieved 2010-10-19. 

Further reading

  • Irion, R. (2002). "VERA RUBIN PROFILE: The Bright Face Behind the Dark Sides of Galaxies". Science 295 (5557): 960–961. doi:10.1126/science.295.5557.960. 
  • Lightman, Alan; Brawer, Roberta (1990). Origins : the lives and worlds of modern cosmologists. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674644700. 
  • Overbye, Dennis (1991). Lonely hearts of the cosmos : the scientific quest for the secret of the universe (1st ed.). New York, NY: HarperCollins. ISBN 9780060159641. 
  • Panek, Richard (2011). The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 9780618982448. 
  • Peebles, P.J.E. (1993). Principles of physical cosmology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press. ISBN 9780691019338. 
  • Rubin, Robert (2006). "Vera Cooper Rubin (1928–)". In Byers, Nina; Williams, Gary. Out of the shadows : contributions of twentieth-century women to physics (Reprinted ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Pr. pp. 343–354. ISBN 978-0521821971. 
  • Rubin, Vera (1998). "Dark matter in the Universe" (PDF). Scientific American Presents (special quarterly issue: Magnificent Cosmos) 9 (1): 106&ngash;110. 
  • Smith, Julian A. (1995). "Rubin, Vera". In McMurray, Emily J.; Kosek, Jane Kelly; Valade III, Roger M. Notable twentieth-century scientists. Detroit, MI: Gale Research. ISBN 9780810391819. 

External links

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