Vera Rubin: the astronomer who discovered dark matter

Since childhood, Vera Rubin had become fascinated with what she saw in the sky

In the 60s, women were not meant to be scientists but homemakers. Vera Rubin got married at age 19 to a physicist, Robert Rubin. They moved  from upstate New York to Philadelphia. Rubin had given up a place in Harvard to start a family as a wife and mother to eventually four children.

In her childhood, Rubin’s father helped her make her first telescope and supported her habit of watching meteor showers. Using a cardboard tube, she made her own kaleidoscope. Out of her bedroom window, Vera would be fascinated by what she saw in the sky.

In 1965, when she joined the Palomar Observatory that house the world’s largest telescope, Rubin became the first female astronomer that ever worked there. 

At Palomar, Rubin was the first female scientist ever worked there

Rubin’s stint at the Palomar was not a pleasant one. She protested the all-male department, there were often arguments in the meetings. When Rubin presented her groundbreaking founding of the “dark matter,” it met with strong skepticism. 

Working from the idea by Fritz Zwicky, Swiss astrophysicist who claimed in the 1930s that the bright shinning stars made up only a part of the cosmic whole, Rubin set out to find and understand the “dark matter” revealed indirectly by the effects of gravity.

Working with her colleague, Kent Ford, she realized that Einstein was wrong when said about the spiral galaxies, such as Andromeda were spinning so fast that their outer stars should be flying away into the never-ending void.


On the progress of astronomic findings, Vera once said that: “(it) was out of kindergarten, but only in about third grade.”

She was right, there is so much unknown in the deep universe. In 1995, she discovered NGC 4550: a galaxy in which half of the stars orbit in one direction, mingled with half that headed the other way.* For her discovery, Rubin won the America’s National Medal of Science and the Gold Medal of Britain’s Royal Astronomy Society- that was last rewarded to a woman in 1818. But, to Rubin, the greatest accomplishment would be if astronomers down the line used her data.

Vera Rubin passed away on December 25th of 2017.

*I extracted this explanation from the Economist article.

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