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Modern Astronomy

Modern Astronomy

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While others speculate about dark matter, Vera Rubin goes on
watching the stars—and making new discoveries. In the early
1990s, for instance, she found a strange galaxy in which half the
stars are rotating clockwise and the other half counterclockwise.
She thinks this galaxy obtained some of its stars when it merged
with a cloud of gas. Her discovery provides evidence for the idea,
proposed by others, that large galaxies form from combinations of
smaller galaxies and gas clouds. Rubin has done other research on
the evolution of galaxies with her daughter, Judith Young, a profes-
sor of astronomy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Remembering her own struggles for acceptance, Vera Rubin has
worked hard to improve women’s access to careers in astronomy.
“I’m satisfied that [the chance for women to have a successful
career in astronomy is] improving,” she told Sally Stephens in 1991,
although she admitted that “it really is improving very, very slowly.”
Rubin encourages young women interested in astronomy or any
other science to “absolutely not give up.” She reminds them that,
with luck and support, they can have both a family and a career, as
she herself has done so successfully.
Rubin has won many honors for her work, including election to
the National Academy of Sciences (1981), the National Medal of
Science (1993), the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society
(1996), the Cosmology Prize of the Peter Gruber Foundation (2002),
and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s Bruce Medal (2003).
She was the first woman to be awarded the Royal Astronomical
Society’s Gold Medal since famed 19th-century astronomer Caroline
Herschel received it in 1828.
Far more than awards, however, Rubin treasures the process of
doing research. “It’s enormous fun,” she said in the interview with
Stephens. “Observing is spectacularly lovely. . . . And I enjoy analyzing
the observations, trying to see what you have, trying to understand

what you’re learning. . . . What keeps me going is . . . hope and
curiosity, this basic curiosity about how the universe works.”

Chronology

1928

Vera Cooper born in Philadelphia on July 23

1930s

Fritz Zwicky and Sinclair Smith predict existence of dark matter

1938

Cooper family moves to Washington, D.C., and Vera Cooper
begins watching the stars through her bedroom window

1948

Cooper graduates from Vassar with bachelor’s degree in
astronomy and marries Robert (Bob) Rubin

1950

Vera Rubin obtains master’s degree from Cornell University in
November; she gives talk to American Astronomical Society
meeting in December, reporting that galaxies appear to be
rotating around a common center

1951

The Rubins move to Washington, D.C.

1952

Vera Rubin begins studying for Ph.D. at Georgetown
University

1954

Rubin concludes that galaxies are distributed unevenly in the
universe; she earns a Ph.D. from Georgetown

1955–64 Rubin researches and teaches at Georgetown; with her hus-
band, she raises four children

1963

Rubin begins observing to determine rotation speeds of stars
in the outer parts of the Milky Way

1965

Rubin becomes first woman legally allowed to use telescope
at Mount Palomar; she joins Department of Terrestrial
Magnetism, a research laboratory of the Carnegie Institution
of Washington

1970

Rubin and Kent Ford find that stars in the outer edges of the
Andromeda galaxy are rotating at least as fast as those near
the galaxy’s center

THE INVISIBLE UNIVERSE 135

136 Modern Astronomy

1970s

Rubin and Ford discover the Rubin-Ford effect early in the
decade; late in the decade and in the early 1980s, they show
that galaxies are embedded in halos of “dark matter” with a
mass five to 10 times greater than that of the visible galaxies

1990s

Early in the decade, Rubin finds a galaxy containing stars that
rotate in different directions

1993

Rubin wins National Medal of Science

1996

Rubin becomes first woman since Caroline Herschel to win
Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal

2002

Rubin wins Gruber International Cosmology Prize

2003

Rubin wins Bruce Medal from Astronomical Society of the
Pacific

Further Reading

Books

Lightman, Alan, and Roberta Brawer. Origins: The Lives and Worlds
of Modern Cosmologists. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
Press, 1990.

Includes a long interview with Rubin.

Rubin, Vera. Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters. New York: Springer
Verlag, 1996.

Collection of short essays and talks by Rubin on her work and other
astronomical subjects. Includes several biographical interviews.

Yount, Lisa. Contemporary Women Scientists. New York: Facts On
File, 1994.

Book for young adults containing a chapter on Rubin that describes
her discovery of dark matter and other research.

Articles

Bartusiak, Marcia. “The Woman Who Spins the Stars.” Discover 11
(October 1990) 88–94.

Describes Rubin’s life and work, focusing on her discovery of dark
matter.

Irion, Robert. “The Bright Face behind the Dark Sides of Galaxies.”
Science 295 (February 8, 2002): 960–961.

Article about Rubin’s career that was written when astronomers gave
a symposium in her honor.

Rubin, Vera C. “Dark Matter in Spiral Galaxies.” Scientific American
248 (June 1983): 96–108.

Description for nonscientists of Rubin’s discovery that much of the
matter in galaxies gives off no light and is not concentrated in the
centers of the galaxies.

———, and W. K. Ford. “Rotation of the Andromeda Nebula from a
Spectroscopic Survey of Emission Regions,” Astrophysical Journal
159 (1970): 379.

Spectroscopic analysis of the Andromeda galaxy showing that stars in
the outer part of the galaxy are orbiting the galaxy’s center as fast as,
or faster than, stars closer to the center.

———, and others. “Rotation Velocities of 16 Sa Galaxies and a
Comparison of Sa, Sb, and Sc Rotation Properties.” Astrophysical
Journal 289 (1985): 81.

Analysis of rotation speeds of outer and inner material in many kinds
of galaxies, confirming that the galaxies must be surrounded by large
halos of invisible matter.

THE INVISIBLE UNIVERSE 137

138

9

OTHER STARS,
OTHER WORLDS

GEOFFREY MARCY, PAUL BUTLER, AND
EXTRASOLAR PLANETS

Paul Butler (left) and Geoffrey Marcy are the world’s leading finders of extra-
solar planets. Their team of scientists, California & Carnegie Planet Search, has
found about two-thirds of the planets so far shown to orbit other stars. (R. Paul
Butler, CIW/DTM; Geoffrey W. Marcy, University of California, Berkeley)

While Frank Drake and other SETI researchers scan the heavens

for possible signals from civilizations on other planets, other
astronomers work on the same problem from the other end: look-
ing for planets from which such signals might come. Although these
researchers have not yet located planets likely to harbor life (let
alone intelligent life), they have shown that planets in general are far
from uncommon. In providing convincing evidence that more than
100 nearby stars have planets, they have begun supplying numbers
to fill in Drake’s famous equation and have taken the search for
extraterrestrial life a step further into the realm of hard science.
They have also revised astronomers’ ideas about how planetary sys-
tems form and what such systems usually look like.
Several astronomical teams are searching for planets orbiting other
stars—so-called extrasolar planets, or exoplanets for short—but the
kings of planet finding are two American scientists, Geoffrey Marcy
and Paul Butler. The team led by Marcy and Butler has found about
two-thirds of the total exoplanets discovered so far.

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