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THE WOMAN WHO

SPINS THE STARS

Something in the universe just doesn't
add up, says Vera Rubin. And after a
lifetime of careful measurements,
she's got the numbers to prove it.
BY MARCIA BARTUSIAK

n 1938, when Vera Cooper was ten years old, her family moved from
Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. In her new bedroom she slept beneath a
window that faced north. At night, as the Earth turned and Vera struggled to
stay awake, she would watch the slow procession of the constellations
around the North Star; if a meteor blazed down from the heavens, she would
memorize its trail. "Don't spend all night hanging out the window," her
mother would say. But young Vera was hooked.
Vera Cooper has long since added the surname Rubin to her own, and the hair
that was long and brown is now gray-white and cut comfortably short. But she still
lives in Washington, D.C., and she is still fascinated by celestial motions. Only now
when she ponders them, she travels to mountaintops in Arizona, California, and
Chile and looks through the electronic eyes of the world's largest telescopes.
Among her fellow astronomers Rubin is known as an expert observer of the night
sky, one of the best. Her reputation derives from the project she has doggedly
pursued throughout most of her career: measuring how fast spiral galaxies are
spinning, from their luminous cores out to the faint wisps of light at their fringes.
Such a task may sound tedious; even her colleagues thought so when she started
the project, 20 years and 200 galaxies ago. But with her painstaking measurements
Rubin has learned something important about galaxies: they spin so fast they ought
to fly apart. Apparently they remain intact only because they are embedded in vast
spheres of matter whose gravity keeps the stars in check. We cannot see this
matter-it is dark to all our detectors. But it seems to make up at least 90 percent of
the mass of the universe.
Largely because of Rubin's work, dark matter has become the buzzword in
astronomy. Observers are desperate to find some way of seeing it; theorists are
desperate to find an explanation of what it is-swarms of unknown elementary
particles, for instance, or hidden armadas of Jupiterlike planets. Yet Rubin never
intended to stir up such ferment, let alone change the way we see the universe.
When she began her career, all she wanted was to keep looking at the stars.
In Rubin's basement office there is a giant blowup of the Andromeda galaxy on
the ceiling, a print of Van Gogh's Starry Night on the wall, and, on this particular "'
day, cardboard boxes all over the floor. Rubin and many of her colleagues at the ~
Carnegie Institution of Washington's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (a name i
that dates from the organization's original mission of mapping Earth's magnetic ~
field) are moving to a newly constructed building next door. The department's lush ~
grounds are a chaos of trucks; the library has been closed; and the computer system ~
is about to be shut down for weeks. Some of the staff have escaped by going on §
vacation, but Rubin-just back from the Kitt Peak National Observatory, where she ~

Vera Rubin is known for her kindness. She is also known for having made the
observations that all but cinched the existence of a universe full of dark matter.

88 DISCOVER • OCTOBER • 1990

she wrote away for a catalog of its graduate school. She ended up going to Corneli. Rubin remembers a high school physics teacher telling her." She is warm and cordial nevertheless. "Each hour is precious right now. then.' " Thrned down by Swarthmore. where her husband. someone would say. Yet. she has always picked problems that have thrown her into the thick of it. helping Rubin build her first telescope when she was 14 years old and taking her to amateur astronomy meetings in Washington. "I won't be able to see my images on the computer for a month. She never received the catalog. She is a researcher who dislikes controversy-so much so that she often tries to escape it. an electrical engineer. laughing. "That became a standard joke in my family for many years. "Whenever anything went wrong for me at work. At Cornell she was doubly the outsider: she was a woman.had four nights of the clearest obser­ vations of her life-is staying on. Her career has been marked with a series of professional setbacks that might have proved insurmountable to others. Rubin always gives full attention to the task at hand . But since her course work was largely in physics. Rubin entered Vassar at the age of 17 and graduated three years later with a bach­ elor's degree in astronomy. was a grad­ uate student in physical chemistry. Robert Rubin. or reflecting on her career. Certainly her path was not laid out for her. she was in the right place at the right time: DIS COVER • O C TOBER • 1990 89 . A Swarthmore admissions officer sug­ gested she pursue the more ladylike career of painting astronomical sub­ jects. . Princeton did not accept women into its graduate astro­ physics program until 1971. . Enthu­ siastic and naive. . whether it is computing. "You 'll do all right so long as you stay away from science. and she was in what was then a mediocre astronomy department consisting of only two fac­ ulty members. ob­ serving. somehow. a prestigious astrophysics center." she says. encour­ aged her. 'Have you ever thought of a career in which you paint. as now." she says. She wanted nothing more than to continue her work at Princeton. At one point Rubin contemplated going to Swarthmore College in Penn­ sylvania to major in astronomy." Fortunately her father.

Ph.) there a pattern to their positions in the especially considering the paucity of data No one believed the unknown 22-year­ sky? she asked. Ph. and she learned quantum decades later. but a that power the sun. But at least. "I actually cried every time They had observed that light waves from the Astrophysical Journal came into the distant galaxies are stretched. almost all negative. would be given at such a meeting today. almost all nega­ hours. was one Rubin's pioneering doctoral thesis tack­ much alone in this view." she says. more or less randomly? For months she were extremely difficult to measure. Galactic velocities old.D.D.D. Judith ~ (1952). out of billions of galaxies.D. program in astronomy. and she. (Around 800 led the distribution of galaxies. Professionally. today. geology.Hans Bethe. her professional debut. but he was pretty report. Ph. Soon after the conference she moved Richard Feynman. Rubin taught and did research at Georgetown. but. electrodynamics from the flamboyant amount of publicity. her life throughout the i 1950s was rather uneventful. Rubin concluded tive. The frustrations led her to George­ For her master's thesis Rubin decided sideways motion apart from the out­ town. and Allan @ (1960). It was a ing around the cosmos as well as bal­ In 1950. house. Or were they arranged she had to work with. ings at the eighty-fourth meeting of the dren." nell my husband would be out doing his ing space-time. from ticeable dumpiness in the spread of that the galaxies did display some extra. she announced her find­ while Rubin's parents watched the chil­ early proponent of the Big Bang theory. the dogma that galaxies ought to be smoothly distributed. Karl i (1956). band began a new job. geology. Pennsylvania. began ades that the universe was expanding. The idea that the expan­ science and I would be home changing sion had started with a Big Bang was diapers. Nevertheless. and it was later rejected desktop calculator. looning outward." galaxies-caused hardly a ripple in 1954. the conference. "It got an enormous could complete the analysis in a few 109 redshifts. and master's degree didn't make me an as­ had conduded that a galaxy's redshift is astronomers knew tronomer. She wasn't con­ strained by the party line that pervaded the more prestigious universities-in this case. her husband drove her to the had speculated that galaxies might ro­ American Astronomical Society. upon ana c amount of publicity. an her first child. held that university and ate his supper in the car tate around the universe the way stars year in Haverford. After receiving her Ph. as i evidenced by four short lines in her ~ curriculum vitae. or shifted from then on. In fact. Her result-that there was a no­ Iyzing these redshifts. swirl around a galaxy. § The first galaxy Rubin studied in detail was nearby Andromeda. and Her paper had almost been banned from slogged through her calculations on a at the time. astronomers knew who I was. "But at least. her data seemed much too scanty. then on. she suspects her data were Prize for unraveling the fusion reactions too poor to justify her conclusion. a penchant she attrib­ utes as much to her academic isolation as to her curiosity. the only school in the area with a to ask whether the galaxies were swing­ ward motion due to cosmic expansion. It was thus a of 50 papers presented. who would win a Nobel "My first paper In hindsight. For nearly two years.D. where her hus­ By the time Rubin arrived at Cornell. three weeks after the birth of family enterprise. ahead of her distinguished ~ degrees. Ph.D. the topic was not seriously stud­ ied until 15 years later. Ph. with her astronomers had known for two dec­ growing family responsibilities. taught her quantum got an enormous measure of vindication was to come mechanics. to feel adrift. The while she attended her nighttime classes. she's enormously proud ~ of the work she was doing then. but nothing in my education a measure of how fast it is moving away had taught me that one year after Cor­ from us as it is swept along by expand­ who I was. back to Washington. Was daring question for Rubin to pursue. She and her husband spent a year at the ~ 90 DISCOVER • OCTOBER • 1990 . George Gamow. a computer astronomers had managed to obtain only by every top journal.." just gaining currency. g Not until 1963 did Rubin's astronomi. ~ cal career finally get the spark it needed. she lists these accomplishments: § David (1950). "I knew that getting a toward the red end of the spectrum. cosmic-ray physics." recalls Rubin. mathematics. Ahead ~ of her awards. Again she had jumped the gun.

"However. goes with hot topics. Ford extra motion. "DTM galaxies. Rubin. we do have one in­ or large-scale motions superimposed sphere is familylike. as it should if the bulk of the galaxy's mass is in the center. outspo­ possible to collect light ten times faster." she says after a diplomatic pause. "In my mind I had at last be­ never vitriolic. The DTM is known for the free­ When Rubin and Ford first started Some astronomers still contend dom it grants its researchers-in partic­ working together. The shift at each point on a spectral line indicates the rotation velocity at the corresponding point on the galactic disk. the edge of the visible universe and are sults. which each person fixes more skilled in guiding the telescope. wonderful person. The daily tense disagreement: we both think we're upon that expansion. is an His technical skills complement Rubin's "There was a belief that the expansion unusual organization. Light coming from the side of the galaxy moving toward Earth is shifted toward the blue end. for the Burbidges ally. Soon after returning to Wash­ W. Its staff analytic ones almost perfectly. is stirred by strong." hottest topic around. master's thesis: Do galaxies just go along At the same time. he had recently helped perfect broke out at conferences. place I've ever done scientific work. noted astrono­ years earlier. has been vindicated. And she often told me. a place cal instruments. made it research. is small. light coming from the side moving away is shifted toward red. and again her findings ington. She was 36. We interpreted staff lunches. Even sure whether the data were good. T he DTM. and they were the with the general expansion. when placed in mers wrote Rubin urging her to quit the it. and the atmo­ Ford. she went over to the Depart­ is a physicist and designer of astronomi­ were overwhelmingly rejected. She asked for a job and got an image tube that. University of California at San Diego. it now appears." says and that there were no large individual researchers in all." do astronomy for money or publicity. so I never took it person­ In the early 1970s she and Ford re­ come an astronomer. where she worked with Margaret and says David Burstein. 'You don't turned to the question asked by her were actually interested in my ideas. The case for dark matter is that the velocity doesn't decrease toward the disk's edge. when Rubin arrived at guments about the "Rubin-Ford effect" she had visited and fallen in love with the DTM. Because the galaxy is rotating." chats. however. Differ­ obtained a certain redshift before I was made in stars. the vertical lines in its spectrum are offset. Bitter ar­ ment of Terrestrial Magnetism. The Milky DISCOVER • OCl'OBER • 1990 91 . Rubin. who worked with came to dislike the hurried pace that Geoffrey Burbidge." easy for some people to believe. "People were very . Rubin measures the rotation rate all along the disk. In the mid-1960s quasars had local currents that have nothing to do was the happiest and most harmonious just been discovered. By lining up the slit of her spectrograph with the disk of a spiral galaxy.. she fo und some opened. ken. But ular the freedom from the publish-or­ sars: mysterious blue specks that lie at her basic idea. as it is called. she was complains. "That was probably the ences were debated. not argued. if not her detailed re­ perish edict that reigns in academia. and she has cultivated it herself. the husband-and­ Rubin as a postdoc from 1977 to 1979. they dabbled in qua­ Rubin's results were questionable.' " for the ride as the universe flies out­ career as a professional observer-at One of Rubin's chief satisfactions at ward." she most influenlial year in my life. only a couple dozen a remarkable. or do they move around on their Kitt Peak in Arizona. front of a photographic plate.. thought to be the brilliant cores of young sea. "People were con­ wife team who had recently helped es­ "Vera established an atmosphere where stantly calling me asking whether I had tablish that most chemical elements are it was a joy to do astronomy. which had recently the DTM has been collaborating with own as well? Again. "Vera is of the universe was quiet and smooth. are an We've bumped heads trying to get to our own galaxy. Kent Ford for the past 25 years." says when Vera and I disagreed. The cQsmic Rubin has thrived in this atmosphere. what we observed as a large motion of for the group on a rotating basis. I guess that was not occasion for gossip as well as scientific the eyepiece first. Rubin started her you do it for your own satisfaction.

like Andromeda. toward a distant concentration of galax­ "The knots of gas are so faint that they When Rubin analyzed the subtle ies called the Great Attractor. Rubin hoped to learn. lengthen." . tation in a surprising way. more like what we expected. It have expected. such as Venus and Earth. is very thin. have after galaxy. ~ Individual stars in other galaxies. so it is the gravita­ pening farther out in the spi­ tional pull of the sun that deter­ ral arms. sure the rotational velocity of the galaxy could get. By measuring or more hours. But with the massive core much slower than stars image tube Ford had perfected." recalls rotation carries the stars and gas on one NGC 5676 is one of 200 galaxies Rubin Rubin. Ford. and then developing the The importance of the finding be. like many other astronomers. Andromeda's spiral disk is clouds remained high at large distances slightly inclined toward Earth. isting data were sparse. the other hand. wrong spot could have ruined a night's ies. in­ by the reception her work was getting. and oth­ would follow the same pat­ ers with their arms splayed tern as the light: it would be wide open. on the rotation of spiral galaxies. The finding a property of the universe-we ~ result. According to Newton's tracking down pulsars and qua­ law. So we ~ material moving away. cluding Andromeda. The vertical line in its understand it. she found that it did not against everyone's expectations-and the slit of the spectrograph on a section rotate the way she or anyone else would everyone let Rubin know it. and that the next one would be g shorter-that is. When they if 92 DISCOVER • OCTOBER • 1990 . The stars and gas at of Andromeda. with and its brightness falls off stead­ little fanfare. composed of densely attention to a problem that packed stars. and practically race around the for good reason. even work at the telescope. So while the most mines the speed of the plan­ famous of her colleagues were ets. She turned her exposing the photographic plate for two central bulge. shifted toward blue on the galaxy. picking ones that. The ex­ ets.>' these shifts. while the planets farther out. was a great act of faith . a speck of dust on the examine the spins of other spiral galax. or get redder. proceed at a the first crude estimates of the rotation much slower pace. A galaxy's spin. have a luminous Rubin simply dropped it.~ along the disk. "The rota­ The first galaxy they studied was An­ tional velocity of the individual gas dromeda. they saw that stars and gas i ally too faint for their spectra to be switched to superefficient electronic at a disk's edge travel just as fast as ~ recorded easily. that pull decreases with sars. the light waves didn't make a great thing of it. go a long way toward explain­ That meant a galaxy should ing its structure. Today Rubin and are inclined toward Earth. whole process considerably easier." All this had to be done with a team of Carnegie postdocs began to ~ at various distances from its center. they become bluer. so its from the center of the galaxy. We didn't think we were ~ on the other side away from it. must surely decrease toward the rim. and ~. bright mers had generally assumed ones. The spiral disk seemed far less controversial: that surrounds the bulge. Almost all the mass of galactic centers. for left and toward red on the right. ily toward the edge. where century it took dozens of hours to make the sun's gravity is weaker. Distressed of the sky where nothing was visible. concentrated in the center and Rubin guessed.Way and all the galaxies in a vast region cused on clouds of gas lit up by hot on computer monitors. the closest spiral galaxy the edge of a spiral disk were expected to the Milky Way and by far the bright­ to behave in the same way. but Rubin was our solar system is tied up in curious about what was hap­ the sun. and Ford could now record a spectrum Andromeda deviated from this expec­ in just 2 or 3 hours rather than 30. Rubin and Ford could mea­ plate. The Burbidges behave like a giant solar sys­ had already looked at some tem. the wavelengths of light emitted strong horizontal line is that of thought that Andromeda was a peculiar @ by material approaching Earth get a bit hydrogen." explains Rubin. are gener­ Ford. In the early part of this sun. Thus the inner plan­ galactic rotation rates. Astrono­ There are dim ones. why spirals vary. spirals whose starry arms that the mass of a galaxy are tightly wrapped. all extreme care. In galaxy ~ one as close as Andromeda. orbiting the est from our vantage point. As a spectrum is from its bright center.setting the slit. Most spiral galaxies. "But we weren't smart enough to " side of the disk toward Earth and those studied. We went for every photon we came clear only when Rubin. Rubin farther in. making the around us are being gravitationally drawn stars-but even that operation was tricky. Rubin quietly and deter­ the square of distance from minedly started to measure the sun. "We had to set a microscope. But 15 cannot be seen directly through the tele­ shifts in Andromeda's spectral lines under years ago such large-scale streaming went scope. so Rubin and Ford fo­ detectors that display the final images matter closer to the center.

there are two vocally 1863." What has camps is not likely to subside. "What I enough on a galactic would call a good week scale. Astronomers. im­ doesn't let on. 94 DISCOVER • OCTOBER • 1990 . of people and planets. there's mass." says idly to a plateau. however. is while. could spend the entire Rubin realized that a huge day on science-analyz­ reservoir of extra mate­ ing data and writing pa­ rial. even the sky will not be the limit. in Rubin's eyes the chief sig­ drogen gas at the edge of a few spiral own. she the way a sprinkler sheds can manage only about water. It's called My 8 easy for people to accept. dark-matter universe that she has writ. adhered to this pattern. dead stars. and in general they were ei­ exotic (yet-to-be-discovered) particles that derstanding the universe we bequeath ther attributed to instrument error or far outweigh the ordinary. the outer ones ball bats. for their Indeed." she says. the same woman who could not get Ten years ago. must be tucked is not a typical week for away somewhere in each Rubin. thanks to her." she says. Ac­ nificance of her dark-matter discovery is galaxies and found. something new and exotic is pre­ ence program for inner-city youth. that the gas on mology. She is one of only 75 women tance from the center-a graph called ten times the mass of the glowing spiral. And where there's would be one in which I gravity. On the other serves on the advisory board of a sci­ gravitational glue. to explore the ~ with our eyes. giving professional to suspect that there was talks. she has galaxies in clusters moved Rubin holds a photo of herself with the telescope she used at Vassar." she said recently in a ther in. entirely theoretical reasons. no other bird. "In a very real sense. A lot of her time galaxy. some­ eight nights a year on the thing must be holding the mountain-and she is still stars in. as Rubin was to find cording to the current fashion in cos­ the legacy it leaves to future genera­ later for visible matter. or base­ still using my data years from now. That something generating data. was elected DISCOVER. "The joy and fun of un­ however. Mean­ Grandmother Is an Astronomer. astronomers observed radio-emitting hy­ cisely what cosmologists want. bricks. As early as tional Academy's Com­ the 1930s. in the first issue of in which the visible galaxy is but a her master's thesis published. Fritz Zwicky and Sinclair Science education is also Smith had noticed that a special concern. and working for more in the heavens than such groups as the Na­ meets the eye. astronomy the edge moves just as fast as gas far­ time inflation at the moment of the begins anew. HeJens. twice volunteered to teach around far too fast. In the early 1970s hand." would have careered off Rubin is still watching into interstellar space long galaxies-although with ago. If astronomers are If the planets in our solar system cold planets. "My numbers mean more to me the way to the visible edge of the disk.plotted rotational velocity against dis­ of dark." lyzed 200 galaxies-took dark matter matter in the universe-lO times more I So keen is Rubin on recruiting young !!! off the back burner. is spent meeting with vis­ Rubin was not the first itors. she often gets to the force being powerful office by 7:00. the woman who helped start it an entirely new picture of a galaxy: one all. she the center. universe's birth generated a flood of public lecture. "and the visual galaxies from flying apart. "I think we learn than Rubin needs to keep her spiral people. among the 3. An early has to be gravity. and she ter pervaded the cluster to act as a thing new and exotic.508 researchers elected to the rotation curve-they got the same On the question of what the dark the academy since it was chartered in pattern all the time: moving out from matter might be." as Rubin puts it-but that that's my greatest compliment. Since galaxies do not so many astronomers chas­ seem to be shedding stars ing so few telescopes.~ impression of seeing the rotation curves Until someone actually finds the dark ten a children's book. are fond Rubin. unknown matter that is five to 1981. With over ninety percent of Rubin's arsenal of measurements­ mologists' dark matter ends up weigh­ the matter in the universe still to play since 1978. the Carnegie group has ana­ ing 100 times as much as all the visible With. for which she is i was so striking that it was relatively matter. invisible to her tele­ pers. especially girls. But that scope. which it sustained all pressed mostly by observations. of saying that the "dark matter could be than my name. These were isolated observations. the cos­ children. a superaccelerated burst of space­ tions. 0 ~ come to be accepted. the velocity increased rap­ competing camps. visible stuff to our grandchildren-and to their grand­ simply ignored. "Fame is fleeting. contributing editor Marcia luminous smudge immersed in a sphere to the National Academy of Sciences in Bartusiak wrote about Mount St. and an astronomy course at they suggested that some additional mat­ there is no reason to believe in some­ her children's high school. Indeed. astronomers mittee on Human Rights. the debate between these two now seeking a publisher. But if that impresses her.