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A new biography paints a vivid picture of the life of dark matter pioneer Vera Rubin

Vera Rubin: A Life

Jacqueline Mitton and Simon Mitton
Harvard University Press
2021
320 pp.
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Vera Rubin would not have called herself the discoverer of dark matter. In fact, she once tried to prevent a press release from even including the word “discovery,” instead suggesting that the National Science Foundation’s press team write that her observations “provided convincing evidence.” It is, after all, rare that any topic has only a single devoted researcher and unlikely that a scientific discovery of such magnitude would be made in the absence of a support network of contributors, despite what many biographies would have readers believe.

Unlike such tomes, Jacqueline and Simon Mitton’s Vera Rubin: A Life offers a thoughtful and nuanced chronicle of the famed astronomer’s life that neither overinflates nor diminishes the importance of her contributions. The Mittons’ book is the first full-length biography of Rubin, whose work on the rotational velocity of galaxies went a long way toward establishing the existence of dark matter.

To achieve their remarkable portrait, the authors draw on Rubin’s extensive correspondence, which she saved throughout her life; on marginalia scribbled on research papers; on interviews; and on other archival documents, all of which have only recently become available to researchers. The Mittons also use their own expertise in astronomy to explain Rubin’s findings and their significance.

Rubin (née Cooper) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 23 July 1928 to Pete and Rose Cooper, both immigrants from Eastern Europe who met while employed at the Bell Telephone Company. When the family moved to Washington, D.C., in 1938, Rubin slept in a bed by a window, which sparked a lifelong interest in the night sky. In her free time, she built a telescope and photographed star trails, but her experience with formal education was less than rosy. Rubin enjoyed her math and English classes—every essay she wrote for the latter was related to astronomy—but her high school physics teacher ignored the female students and lauded male scientists, while implying that the achievements of female scientists, such as Marie Curie, relied more on diligence than on brilliance. Rubin later described the physics labs as “a nightmare.”

Rubin’s passion for astronomy inspired her to attend Vassar College, which had a small observatory and a tradition of training female astronomers. (Maria Mitchell had been a professor there.) She largely avoided physics classes, focusing instead on astronomy. During the summers, she returned to D.C., where she worked at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

Vera married Bob Rubin shortly after graduation, rejecting an offer to attend graduate school at Harvard in favor of pursuing a master’s degree at Cornell University, where Bob was finishing his Ph.D. in physics. She would complete her own doctorate at Georgetown University in 1954. The authors emphasize the personal support network provided by Bob and by Vera’s parents that made it possible for her to continue her work in astronomy as the young family grew to include four children.

Mitton and Mitton outline the extensive professional network within which Rubin worked, describing her relationships with various mentors, with co-workers at the Carnegie Institution, and with the larger astronomy community. In doing so, they frame her story within a longer history of humanity’s study of galaxies, offering readers a fresh perspective on the history of astronomy in the 20th century. Readers learn, for example, how advances in imaging technologies affected deep field astronomy.

Rubin was a woman in a male-dominated field, and her story is replete with instances of subtle and overt sexism: A Cornell professor burdened her with his grunt work, Princeton University refused her graduate application, and major observatories lacked quarters and bathroom facilities for women. As her status within astronomy grew, so did her efforts to change the field.

Whether admonishing societies with all-male conference lineups or advocating for the use of gender-neutral language, many of the issues Rubin struggled against persist, but her perseverance will likely resonate with many readers. “As long as the problems of ‘Women in…’ are women’s problems,” she wrote in 1996 to the National Academy of Sciences, “I doubt that they will improve. It has to be everyone’s problem.”

Rubin, who died on 25 December 2016, “once claimed that she neither knew nor cared what role history would assign to her… If other astronomers found her observations ‘irresistible,’ it was the highest compliment she could wish for,” conclude the Mittons. “And they certainly did.”

About the author

The reviewer is at the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD 20740, USA.