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The Life of Astronomer Vera Rubin

by Ashley Jean Yeager

Pub Date: Aug. 17th, 2021
ISBN: 978-0-262-04612-1
Publisher: MIT Press

A concise biography of a pioneering astronomer.

With an observatory, galaxy, asteroid, and Martian mountain bearing the name of Vera Rubin (1928-2016), her immortality seems assured, and Science News associate editor Yeager does a fine job with the first of what promises to be many biographies. Fascinated by stars from an early age, Rubin ignored her teachers’ advice to avoid the sciences, entered Vassar as the only astronomy major in her class, and went on to productive graduate work at Cornell and Georgetown. As attentive to her family as the stars, she and her supportive husband (also a scientist) had four children, all of whom received doctorates in the sciences or mathematics. Yeager’s description of Rubin’s work may perplex science-naïve readers, but most will understand the impressive discoveries. Almost everyone knows that planets circle the sun and that, as gravity weakens, distant planets move more slowly. Stars in galaxies such as our Milky Way also rotate around the center. Astronomers long assumed that they moved like the planets until the 1930s, when they discovered that stars far from the center rotated as fast as those closer in. To prevent such stars from flying off, a galaxy would need far more gravity than astronomers measured. Astronomers debated the possibilities for decades until Rubin’s studies of star movements produced convincing evidence that surrounding every galaxy is a halo of invisible matter five to 10 times greater than what astronomers had previously measured. This “dark matter” seemed incomprehensible, so it was not until the 1980s, a decade after Rubin began publishing her findings, that the establishment came around. Thereafter, she continued her research and teaching, and she earned numerous honors, including the National Medal of Science—but not the Nobel Prize, which many feel she deserved. Rubin’s research lacks the sexiness of exploding stars and black holes, but Yeager has done her homework, delivering a lucid explanation of the science without ignoring Rubin’s struggles as a pathbreaking woman in her profession.

A compelling life of a top-notch scientist.