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Vera Cooper Rubin (July 23, 1928 – December 25, 2016) was an American astronomer who pioneered work on galaxy rotation rates.[1] 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, and was evidence of the existence of dark matter.[2] Although initially met with skepticism, Rubin's results were confirmed over subsequent decades. Her legacy was described by The New York Times as "ushering in a Copernican-scale change" in cosmological theory.[1][3]

Vera Rubin
Vera Rubin in 2009
Born Vera Cooper
(1928-07-23)July 23, 1928
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died December 25, 2016(2016-12-25) (aged 88)
Princeton, New Jersey
Residence Princeton, New Jersey
Nationality American
Fields Astronomy
Institutions Georgetown University, Carnegie Institution of Washington
Alma mater Vassar College, Cornell University, Georgetown University
Thesis Fluctuations in the Space Distribution of the Galaxies (1954)
Doctoral advisor George Gamow
Other academic advisors William Shaw, Martha Carpenter
Notable students Sandra Faber, Rebecca Oppenheimer
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

Beginning her academic career as the sole undergraduate in astronomy at Vassar College, Rubin went on to graduate studies at Cornell University and Georgetown University, where she observed deviations from Hubble flow in galaxies and provided evidence for the existence of galactic superclusters.[1][3]

Rubin spent her life advocating for women in science and was known for her mentorship of aspiring women astronomers. Her data provided some of the first evidence for dark matter, which had been theorized in the 1930s. She was honored throughout her career for her achievements, and received the Bruce Medal, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, and the National Medal of Science, among others.[3][4]


Early lifeEdit

Vera Rubin was born Vera Florence Cooper, on July 23, 1928, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was the younger of two sisters. Her parents were Jewish immigrants: Philip Cooper, a Lithuanian-American electrical engineer who worked at Bell Telephone and Rose Applebaum Cooper, of Bessarabian origin, who worked at Bell until their marriage.[1][5] Her father was born in Vilnius, Lithuania, as Pesach Kobchefski.[5]

The Coopers moved to Washington, D.C. in 1938,[1] where 10-year-old Vera developed an interest in astronomy watching the stars from her window.[1][6] She built a crude telescope out of cardboard with her father, and began to observe and track meteors.[7][8][9] She attended Coolidge High School, graduating in 1944.[8]

Rubin's older sister, Ruth Cooper Burg, eventually became an administrative law judge in the United States Department of Defense.[5]


Rubin pursued undergraduate education at Vassar College, inspired by Maria Mitchell's professorship there, and ignoring advice she had received to avoid a scientific career and become an artist.[1][7] She earned her bachelor's degree in astronomy in 1948,[7] the only graduate in astronomy that year.[4][10] She attempted to enroll in a graduate program at Princeton, but was barred due to her gender.[1][3][10] Princeton would not accept women as astronomy graduate students for 27 more years.[4] Rubin also turned down an offer from Harvard University due to her husband's position as a graduate student at Cornell University.[7]

She enrolled at Cornell University, and earned a master's degree in 1951.[6][8] During her graduate studies, she made one of the first observations of deviations from Hubble flow in the motions of 109 galaxies.[3][7][11] She worked with astronomer Martha Carpenter on galactic dynamics, and studied under Philip Morrison, Hans Bethe, and Richard Feynman.[9][12] Though the conclusion she came to - that there was an orbital motion of galaxies around a particular pole - was disproven, the idea that galaxies were moving held true and sparked further research.[7] Her research also provided early evidence of the supergalactic plane. This data was immensely controversial, and after fighting to be allowed to present her work at the American Astronomical Society despite being pregnant, she was summarily rejected and the paper forgotten.[9]

Rubin studied for her Ph.D. at Georgetown University, the only university in Washington, DC that offered a graduate degree in astronomy.[3][13] She was 23 years old and pregnant when she began her doctoral studies, and the Rubins had one young child at home.[4] She began to take classes with Francis Heyden, who recommended her to George Gamow, her eventual doctoral advisor.[14] Her dissertation, completed in 1954, concluded that galaxies clumped together, rather than being randomly distributed through the universe, a controversial idea not pursued by others for two decades.[3][7][13][15] Throughout her graduate studies, she experienced discouraging sexism, including an incident where she was not allowed to meet with her advisor in his office, because women were not allowed in that area of the university.[1][7]


Rubin held various academic appointments for the next eleven years. She served for a year as an Instructor of Mathematics and Physics at Montgomery County Community College, then worked from 1955-1965 at Georgetown University, as a Research Associate Astronomer, Lecturer (1959-1962), and finally, Assistant Professor of Astronomy (1962-1965).[1][15] She joined the Carnegie Institute in 1965, as a Staff Member in the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism,[1][15][16] where she met her long-time collaborator, instrument-maker Kent Ford.[7] Because she had young children, she did much of her work from home.[8]

In 1963, Rubin began a yearlong collaboration with Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge, where she observed the rotation of galaxies for the first time at the McDonald Observatory's 82 inch telescope.[7] During her work at the Carnegie Institute, Rubin applied to observe at the Palomar Observatory in 1965, despite its tacit rule that women were not allowed. She created her own women's restroom, sidestepping the lack of facilities available for her and becoming the first female astronomer to observe there.[1][3][17]

At the Carnegie Institution, Rubin began work that was close to her controversial thesis regarding galaxy clusters[15] with Ford, making hundreds of observations using Ford's image-tube spectrograph. This instrument allowed Rubin to amplify starlight and view astronomical objects that were previously too dim to see.[7] The Rubin–Ford effect, an apparent anisotropy in the expansion of the Universe on the scale of 100 million light years, was discovered through studies of spiral galaxies, particularly the Andromeda Galaxy, chosen for its brightness and proximity to Earth.[9][18] First appearing in journals in 1976, the idea of peculiar motion on this scale in the universe was a highly controversial proposition, dismissed by leading astronomers but ultimately shown to be valid.[3][9] The effect is now known as large scale streaming.[17] The pair also briefly studied quasars, which had been discovered in 1963 and were a popular topic of research.[7][9]

Wishing to avoid controversial areas of astronomy, including quasars and galactic motion, Rubin began to study the rotation and outer reaches of galaxies, an interest sparked by her collaboration with the Burbidges.[7] She investigated the rotation curves of spiral galaxies, again beginning with Andromeda, by looking at their outermost material, and observed flat rotation curves: the outermost components of the galaxy were moving as quickly as those close to the center.[19] This was an early indication that spiral galaxies were surrounded by dark matter haloes.[3][7] She further uncovered the discrepancy between the predicted angular motion of galaxies based on the visible light and the observed motion.[20] Her research showed that spiral galaxies rotate quickly enough that they should fly apart, if the gravity of their constituent stars was all that was holding them together; because they stay intact, a large amount of unseen mass must be holding them together, a conundrum that became known as the galaxy rotation problem.[3][19]

Rubin's calculations showed that galaxies must contain at least five to ten times as much dark matter as ordinary matter.[21][22] Rubin's results were confirmed over subsequent decades,[1] and became the first persuasive results supporting the theory of dark matter, initially proposed by Fritz Zwicky in the 1930s.[1][9][23] This data was confirmed by radio astronomers, the discovery of the cosmic microwave background, and images of gravitational lensing.[7][9] Her research also prompted a theory of non-Newtonian gravity on galactic scales, but this theory has not been widely accepted by astrophysicists.[3]

Another area of interest for Rubin was the phenomenon of counter-rotation in galaxies. Her discovery that some gas and stars moved in the opposite direction to the rotation of the rest of the galaxy challenged the prevailing theory that all of the material in a galaxy moved in the same direction, and provided the first evidence for galaxy mergers and the process by which galaxies initially formed.[17]

When Rubin was elected to the National Academy of Science, she became the second woman astronomer in its ranks, after her colleague Margaret Burbidge.[7]

Rubin's perspective on the history of the work were presented in a review, "One Hundred Years of Rotating Galaxies," for the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in 2000. This was an adaptation of the lecture she gave in 1996 upon receiving the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the second woman to be so honored, 168 years after Caroline Herschel received the Medal in 1828.[3][24] She continued her research and mentorship until her death in 2016.[7]


Rubin never won the Nobel Prize, though physicists such as Lisa Randall and Emily Levesque have argued that this was an oversight.[9][25] She was described by Sandra Faber and Neta Bahcall as one of the astronomers who paved the way for other women in the field, as a "guiding light" for those who wished to have families and careers in astronomy. Rebecca Oppenheimer also recalled Rubin's mentorship as important to her early career.[1][21][12][19][26]

Rubin died on the night of December 25, 2016 of complications associated with dementia.[1][8][27] The president of the Carnegie Institution, where she performed the bulk of her work and research, called her a "national treasure."[4][21]

The Carnegie Institute has created a postdoctoral research fund in Rubin's honor,[21][28] and the American Astronomical Society has named its Division of Dynamical Astronomy early career award after Rubin.[29][30]

Personal lifeEdit

From 1948 until his death in 2008, she was married to Robert Rubin,[17][31] whom she met while they were graduate students at Cornell University. Rubin became a mother during her graduate studies, and continued to work on her research while raising her young children.[1] All four of her children earned Ph.D.s in the natural sciences or mathematics: David (born 1950), a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey; Judith Young (1952–2014), an astronomer at the University of Massachusetts; Karl (born 1956), a mathematician at the University of California at Irvine; and Allan (born 1960), a geologist at Princeton University.[6][7][26] Her children recalled later in life that their mother made a life of science appear desirable and fun, which motivated them to become scientists themselves.[7]

Vera Rubin with John Glenn

Motivated by her own battle to gain credibility as a woman in a field dominated by male astronomers, Rubin encouraged girls to pursue their dreams of investigating the universe. Overcoming discouraging comments on her choice of study was a lifelong challenge, but she persevered, supported by her family and colleagues.[7][4] In addition to astronomy, Rubin was a force for greater recognition of women in the sciences and for scientific literacy.[4][12][32] She and Burbidge advocated together for more women in the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), on review panels, and in academic searches. She said that she had fought with the NAS, but she continued to be dissatisfied with the number of women who are elected each year, calling it "the saddest part of [her] life".[7][9][33] Rubin was Jewish, and saw 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."[34]

In popular cultureEdit

Rubin was featured in an animated segment of the 13th and final episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.[35]

Awards and honorsEdit




The following are a small selection of articles selected by the scientists and historians of the CWP project, as being representative of her most important writings; Rubin published over 150 scientific papers.[3][15]

  • Rubin, Vera; Ford, Jr., W. Kent (1970). "Rotation of the Andromeda Nebula from a Spectroscopic Survey of Emission Regions". The Astrophysical Journal. 159: 379ff. Bibcode:1970ApJ...159..379R. doi:10.1086/150317. 
  • Rubin, Vera; Roberts, M. S.; Graham, J. A.; Ford Jr., W. K.; 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, Vera; Roberts, M. S.; Graham, J. A.; Ford Jr., W. K.; Thonnard, N. (1976). "Motion of the Galaxy and the Local Group Determined from the Velocity Anisotropy of Distant Sc I Galaxies. II. The Analysis for the Motion". The Astronomical Journal. 81: 719ff. doi:10.1086/111943. 
  • Rubin, Vera; Thonnard, N.; Ford, Jr., W. K. (1980). "Rotational Properties of 21 SC Galaxies With a Large Range of Luminosities and Radii, From NGC 4605 (R=4kpc) to UGC 2885 (R=122kpc)". The Astrophysical Journal. 238: 471ff. Bibcode:1980ApJ...238..471R. doi:10.1086/158003. 
  • Rubin, Vera; Burstein, D.; Ford, Jr., W. K.; Thonnard, N. (1985). "Rotation Velocities of 16 SA Galaxies and a Comparison of Sa, Sb, and SC Rotation Properties". The Astrophysical Journal. 289: 81ff. Bibcode:1985ApJ...289...81R. doi:10.1086/162866. 
  • Rubin, Vera; Graham, J. A.; Kenney, J.D. P. (1992). "Cospatial Counterrotating Stellar Disks in the Virgo E7/S0 Galaxy NGC 4550". The Astrophysical Journal. 394: L9–L12. Bibcode:1992ApJ...394L...9R. doi:10.1086/186460. 
  • Rubin, Vera (1995). "A Century of Galaxy Spectroscopy". The Astrophysical Journal. 451: 419ff. Bibcode:1995ApJ...451..419R. doi:10.1086/176230.  The abstract of this is also generally available.[54]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Overbye, Dennis (December 27, 2016). "Vera Rubin, 88, Dies; Opened Doors in Astronomy, and for Women". The New York Times. Retrieved December 27, 2016. 
  2. ^ de Swart, Jaco; Bertone, Gianfranco; van Dongen, Jeroen (2017). "How dark matter came to matter". Nature Astronomy. 1 (0059). arXiv:1703.00013 . doi:10.1038/s41550-017-0059. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o "1996 November 8 meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society". The Observatory. 117: 129–135. June 1997. Bibcode:1997Obs...117..129. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Domonoske, Camila (December 26, 2016). "Vera Rubin, Who Confirmed Existence Of Dark Matter, Dies At 88". NPR News. Retrieved December 27, 2016. 
  5. ^ a b c Bartusiak, Marcia (1993). Through a Universe Darkly: A Cosmic Tale of Ancient Ethers, Dark Matter, and the Fate of the Universe. Toronto, ON, CAN: HarperCollins Canada. pp. 88–94 [verification needed]. ISBN 0060183101. Retrieved December 29, 2016. 
  6. ^ a b c Larsen, Kristine (March 1, 2009). "Vera Cooper Rubin". Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Brookline, MA: Jewish Women's Archive. Retrieved December 30, 2016. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v Irion, Robert (2002). "The Bright Face behind the Dark Sides of Galaxies". Science. Washington, DC: AAAS. 295 (5557, February 8): 960–961. PMID 11834801. doi:10.1126/science.295.5557.960. Retrieved December 29, 2016. 
  8. ^ a b c d e Schudel, Matt. "Vera Rubin, astronomer who proved existence of dark matter, dies at 88". Washington Post. Retrieved 2017-07-07. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Scoles, Sarah (October 4, 2016). "How Vera Rubin Discovered Dark Matter". Astronomy Magazine. Retrieved December 26, 2016. 
  10. ^ a b Overbye, Dennis (27 December 2016). "Vera Rubin, 88, Dies; Opened Doors in Astronomy, and for Women". The New York Times. 
  11. ^ "The Bruce Medalists: Vera Rubin". Retrieved 2017-07-06. 
  12. ^ a b c Drake, Nadia (December 27, 2016). "Vera Rubin, Pioneering Astronomer, Dies at 88". Retrieved December 28, 2016. 
  13. ^ a b Popova, Maria (April 18, 2016). "Pioneering Astronomer Vera Rubin on Women in Science, Dark Matter, and Our Never-Ending Quest to Know the Universe" (journalist blog). Brain Pickings. self-published. Retrieved December 26, 2016. 
  14. ^ "Women in Aviation and Space History - Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum". Retrieved 2017-07-07. 
  15. ^ a b c d e f g Johnson, Ben; Tsai, Meigy (2001). "Vera Cooper Rubin". In Turner, Jean & Byers, Nina. Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics (CWP). Los Angeles, CA: CWP and Regents of the University of California. Archived from the original on April 24, 2013. Retrieved December 29, 2016. 
  16. ^ "Vera Rubin". Retrieved December 29, 2016. 
  17. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Vera Rubin – The Gruber Foundation". Retrieved December 26, 2016. 
  18. ^ Ridpath, Ian, ed. (2016) [2012]. "Rubin-Ford Effect". A Dictionary of Astronomy (2nd, revised ed.). Oxford, GBR: Oxford University Press. p. 406. ISBN 9780199609055. doi:10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100432262. Retrieved 28 December 2016.  See also the publishers online entry.
  19. ^ a b c d Bahcall, Neta A. (2017-02-28). "Vera C. Rubin: Pioneering American astronomer (1928–2016)". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 114 (9): 2099–2100. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 5338491 . PMID 28167783. doi:10.1073/pnas.1701066114. 
  20. ^ Tucker, Wallace; Tucker, Karen (1988). The Dark Matter. William Morrow. ISBN 9780688103880. 
  21. ^ a b c d Science, Carnegie. "Vera Rubin Who Confirmed "Dark Matter" Dies | Carnegie Institution for Science". Retrieved 2017-07-07. 
  22. ^ Randall, Lisa (2015). Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs. HarperCollins. ISBN 9780062328502. 
  23. ^ Peebles, P.J.E. (1993). Principles of Physical Cosmology. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691019339. 
  24. ^ Rubin, Vera (2000). "One Hundred Years of Rotating Galaxies" (PDF). Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. 112 (June): 747–750. doi:10.1086/316573. Retrieved December 28, 2016. 
  25. ^ Randall, Lisa (January 4, 2017). "Why Vera Rubin Deserved a Nobel". New York Times. Retrieved January 4, 2017. 
  26. ^ a b c Bahcall, Neta A. (2017-02-02). "Vera Rubin (1928-2016)". Nature. 542 (7639): 32–32. ISSN 0028-0836. doi:10.1038/542032a. 
  27. ^ AJC Staff (December 26, 2016). "Pioneering Astronomer Vera Rubin Dies at 88". Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Associated Press. Retrieved December 26, 2016. 
  28. ^ Science, Carnegie. "Vera Rubin Fellowship | Carnegie Institution for Science". Retrieved 2017-07-07. 
  29. ^ "DDA's New Early Career Prize Named for Vera Rubin | American Astronomical Society". Retrieved 2017-07-07. 
  30. ^ "Vera Rubin Early Career Prize | Division on Dynamical Astronomy". Retrieved 2017-07-07. 
  31. ^ Sullivan, Patricia (February 5, 2008). "Robert J. Rubin, 81; Scientist Whose Work Combined Disciplines". The Washington Post. Retrieved December 28, 2016. 
  32. ^ "Vera Rubin in the pages of Physics Today". doi:10.1063/pt.5.9080/full/. 
  33. ^ "Vera Rubin". The Gruber Foundation. Retrieved December 26, 2016. 
  34. ^ "Pontifical Science Academy Banks on Stellar Cast". December 1–7, 1996. Retrieved October 19, 2010. 
  35. ^ DTM Staff (2013). "Vera Rubin's Influential Work on Dark Matter is Highlighted in Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey". Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM), Carnegie Institution of Washington. Retrieved December 26, 2016. 
  36. ^ NAS Staff (2016). "Vera Rubin". National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Retrieved December 26, 2016. 
  37. ^ "Women's History Month – Vera Rubin". Retrieved December 26, 2016. 
  38. ^ "APS Members' Directory Search". Retrieved December 26, 2016. 
  39. ^ Administrator. "Winners of the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society". Retrieved December 29, 2016. 
  40. ^ Nichols, Michelle (June 10, 1998). "Michele's Astronomy Web Page, Astronomy History, Mount Wilson and Palomar [Cindy Blaha's Students—Observational Projects, Spring 1998: Michele Nichols]" (undergraduate comps essay). Retrieved December 30, 2016. 
  41. ^ "Recipients". Retrieved December 31, 2016. 
  42. ^ "Weizmann Women & Science Award -". Retrieved December 31, 2016. 
  43. ^ "2002 Gruber Cosmology Prize | The Gruber Foundation". Retrieved 2017-07-06. 
  44. ^ "2002 Gruber Cosmology Prize Press Release". The Gruber Foundation. Retrieved December 26, 2016. 
  45. ^ ASP Staff (2003). "Vera Rubin Wins 2003 ASP Bruce Medal and Other ASP Award Winners". San Francisco, CA: Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP). Retrieved December 26, 2016. 
  46. ^ James Craig Watson Medal at the Wayback Machine (archived July 23, 2013)
  47. ^ Science, Carnegie. "News - Carnegie Institution for Science". Retrieved December 29, 2016. 
  48. ^ "Dickson Prize". Retrieved December 26, 2016. 
  49. ^ NSF Staff (2016). "National Medal of Science 50th Anniversary: Vera Rubin (1928– )". Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation (NSF). Retrieved December 26, 2016. 
  50. ^ Lifetime Achievement Award at the Wayback Machine (archived November 4, 2013)
  51. ^ "Jansky Lecture Redirect". Retrieved December 26, 2016. 
  52. ^ "Henry Norris Russell Lectureship". American Astronomical Society. Retrieved December 26, 2016. 
  53. ^ NSF Staff (2016). "National Medal of Science 50th Anniversary: Vera Rubin (1928– )". Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation (NSF). Retrieved December 26, 2016. 
  54. ^ Rubin, Vera. "A Century of Galaxy Spectroscopy". Bulletin of the AAS, Vol. 26. 185th AAS Meeting. Washington, DC: American Astronomical Society (AAS). p. 1360. 31.01. Retrieved December 29, 2016. 

External linksEdit