Table of Contents
Early life and education
Rubin (ne Cooper) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on July 23, 1928. She graduated from Vassar College in 1948 with a bachelors degree in Astronomy. She then tried to enroll at Princeton but never received their graduate catalogue as women there were not allowed in the graduate astronomy programme until 1975.
She went instead, with her new husband Bob Rubin, a physicist, to Cornell University, where she completed a Master’s degree in 1951. Her master’s thesis was severely criticised when presented to the American Astronomical Society: Rubin suggested that galaxies might be rotating around an unknown center, not just expanding out as described in the big bang theory. There was no scientific theory to explain this finding and she was severely criticised. Despite this she went on to complete a PhD at Georgetown University in 1954. Again, her disseration was ignored and criticised; her findings were later validated.
Rubin is credited with proving the existence of “dark matter,” or nonluminous mass, and thereby altering our perceptions of the universe. With her colleagues at the Carnegie Institute (which she joined in 1965), Rubin observed through an image tube spectrograph objects that were many times fainter than those that had previously been studied. Rubin’s interest in how stars orbit their galactic centers led her and Ford to study the nearby spiral M31, the Andromeda galaxy. Newtonian gravitational theory states that an object farther from its central mass will orbit slower. But, to Rubin and her colleagues’ surprise, the scientists found that stars far from the center traveled as fast as those near the center.
By the late 1970s, after Rubin and her colleagues had observed dozens of spirals, it was clear that something other than the visible mass was responsible for the stars’ motions. Analysis showed that each spiral galaxy is embedded in a spheroidal distribution of dark matter — a “halo.” The stars’ response to the gravitational attraction of the matter produces the high velocities. As a result of Rubin’s groundbreaking work, it has become apparent that more than 90% of the universe is composed of dark matter. During the 1970s, Rubin and collaborators Ford, Norbert Thonnard, and John Graham were among the first astronomers to examine the systemic velocities of galaxies to see if there are large-scale motions of galaxies, superposed on the general expansion of the universe. Their early work, and more recent work by others, suggests that such motions exist.
Prizes and distinctions
- Dickson Prize for Science
- National Medal of Science (1993)
- Henry Norris Russell Lectureship in 1994
- Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1996 [She was only the second female recipient of this medal, the first being Caroline Herschel in 1828]
- Bruce Medal in 2003
- James Craig Watson Medal in 2004
- Women in Science