MY STORY OF THE MONTH:
On Christmas Day the astrophysicist, Vera Rubin died at the age of 88. It was her groundbreaking and unorthodox work in the 1970s that confirmed the existence of dark matter.
When discussing her career options, a high school physics teacher told her, "As long as you stay away from science, you should do OK." However, Rubin was passionate about astronomy having watched stars late into the night and built her own telescope at the age of 14. After graduating, she was rebuffed by Princeton from their graduate school because women weren't accepted on the course (this held until 1975). By this time she had one child and another on the way.
She looked for a problem she could do at her own pace that was family friendly. She resisted the fashionable study of black holes to focus on a little known area, the examination of the orbit of galaxies. She noticed a curious phenomenon. The stars on the outer rim of galaxies travelled as fast as those in the centre. This was unexpected. It was either Newton’s gravitation laws failed, or a huge amount of invisible mass was holding the stars together. This unseen substance has since been called dark matter. After studying 200 galaxies, there was a gradual and grudging acceptance of her work. Nowadays it's believed that more than 90 percent of the universe is composed of dark energy and dark matter “and now," Rubin said,"we learn that we are just studying the 5% or 10% that is luminous.”
She was eventually elected to the National Academy of Science, awarded the National Medal of Science in 1993 and the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1996 - the first woman to receive it since 1828.
Her advice on balancing work and family life was to “just sort of muddle through. It gets easier.” It helped that she had a supportive husband and a large house. “The kids had their rooms, and I never cared what they looked like,” she said..
In addition to her transformational work, she was a passionate advocate of women in science. She wrote, "I live and work by three basic assumptions
- There is no problem that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman.
- Worldwide, half of all brains are in women.
- We all need permission to do science, but, for reasons that are deeply ingrained in history, this permission is given to more men than it is to women."