Robert Naeye, donated a portrait of Vera Rubin to the American Institute of Physics.

Vera Rubin, the lady who discovered evidence for dark matter breathed her last on December 25, 2016. The 88-year-old astronomer played a key role in the theory of dark matter.

Vera Cooper Rubin was born on July 23, 1928 in Philadelphia. At the age of ten, she moved to Washington D.C, where she developed interest in astronomy. After earning a BA degree in astronomy at Vassar College, she went on to pursue her Master’s at Cornell University. She married Robert Rubin, and has four children.

Vera Rubin at the Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona.

In 1951, on completion of her study, she made her first observation of deviation from Hubble flow in motions of galaxies. Her argument was that the galaxies might be rotating around unknown centers rather than simply moving outwards.

 

Completing her Ph.D. in 1954, her thesis concluded that galaxies clumped together, instead of being randomly distributed through the universe. But, the then male-dominant science society, did not accept her ideas well.

Later she joined the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Here, along with her friend Kent Ford, she went on to study the rotation of galaxies. She became the first woman allowed to use the instruments at the Palomar Observatory.

She pioneered on rate of rotation of galaxies where she uncovered the discrepancy between the predicted and observed angular motion of the galaxies. As per her observations the galaxies are rotating so fast that naturally they would fly apart, but in contradiction they were not. Hence, concluded that there is a huge amount of unseen mass that is holding them together, rather than the gravity between them.

Kent Ford shows where a key component, the image tube spectrograph, was located in a photo of the two of them inspecting the telescope at Kitt Peak where the data were taken. Photo credits : Michael Lucibella, APS

Her calculations showed that galaxies must contain at least ten times as much dark mass, i.e. unseen mass as can be accounted for by the visible stars. As all these conclusions would mean to disobey Newtons laws of gravity, it became a challenge for her to explain her theories.

She once quoted, “Science progresses best when observations force us to alter our preconceptions.”. As quoted, her attempts to explain the gravitational rotational problem led to the theory of Dark Matter.

In the late 1970s, Rubin obtained strongest evidence on the existence of dark matter, although its nature is yet unknown.

She has received about a score of awards, the most prominent ones being, Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, Bruce medal and National medal of Science.

The Rubin-Ford effect and asteroid 5726 Rubin was named in her honour.

Rubin once remarked, “Fame is fleeting, my numbers mean more to me than my name. If astronomers are still using my data years from now, that’s my greatest compliment.”

She worked with galaxies until the dark curtains fell on the Christmas night of 2016. The world saw yet another loss in the world’s greatest astronomers.

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