We’re very sad to report that astronomer Vera Rubin died today at the age of 88. Rubin’s work in the sixties and seventies charting the way galaxies rotate revealed — or rather, suggested — the existence of dark matter: an unidentified form of matter that makes up roughly 27% of the universe.
Born in Philadelphia in 1928, Rubin received an undergraduate degree in astronomy at Vassar College, before continued her education at Cornell University, and Georgetown University, where she earned her PhD. Rubin had initially planned to pursue her graduation education at Princeton University, but the institution declined to admit her. Princeton did not admit women into their astronomy grad program until the mid seventies.
Rubin collected numerous professional accolades throughout her life, including the National Medal of Science, Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the James Craig Watson Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, and many others. An asteroid, 5276 Rubin, was named for her, as is the Rubin-Ford effect: an observation of the way galaxies move away discovered with colleague Kent W. Ford.
Rubin was quoted once as saying something to the effect that fame meant less to her than the hope that people would still be using her data after her death. With that in mind, maybe the best way to honor her life would be to learn more about the work she held so dear. Rubin’s own book Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters is out of print, so let’s take a look at a few other great reads.
Richard Panek’s dramatic story focuses on the small group of scientists who have worked toward unraveling the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy: two theoretical forces that compose the vast majority of reality, yet are totally invisible. Combining lucid explanations of complicated scientific concepts with a thrilling narrative of discovery and rivalry, The 4 Percent Universe is an exciting and educating read.
The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter
by Katherine Freese
How about a behind the scenes look at the hunt for dark matter from a scientist who actually does it? If that sounds like a good read, then astronomer Katherine Freese’s The Cosmic Cocktail should be your next book purchase. Freese has a gift for breaking down complicated scientific concepts and the people behind them in a way that’s both entertaining and totally approachable.
The study of dark matter and dark energy is part of the cutting edge of astronomical science, but getting a handle on it and why it’s so important can be a little challenging for the curious reader. Einstein’s Telescope may be the book layman readers have been looking for: an explanation of this exciting field of research that is accessible to anyone without being overly simplistic.
A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit
by Alan Lightman
This collection of essays from Einstein’s Dreams author Alan Lightman explores the important role of creativity plays in the work of scientists like Vera Rubin, along with Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and many others. The power of the imagination in stimulating scientific insight is sometimes underplayed in the grand narrative of progress, and Lightman’s book gives creativity its just due.