Skip to main content
Localize site content

Who was Vera Rubin?

Who was Vera Rubin, and why was a major US observatory named after her? Read on to learn about Vera Rubin and how her legacy has inspired the work we do at Rubin Observatory.

She made essential contributions to the study of dark matter

Dr. Vera C. Rubin was an American astronomer whose work provided convincing evidence for the existence of unseen "dark" matter in the Universe. Prior to her work, dark matter was a concept that had been introduced but not taken seriously. But when Vera Rubin and her colleague Kent Ford studied more than 60 galaxies and found that the stars at the outer edges were moving just as fast as those towards the center, they knew for sure that something strange was going on. What they observed didn't obey the laws of physics -- if they added up the mass of all of the seen matter, the galaxies should have been flying apart! There had to be some invisible mass holding the galaxies together and causing them to rotate at such high velocities. The work resulting from these observations eventually convinced the science community that dark matter was real.

Since then, scientists have figured out that dark matter makes up more than 80% of all the matter in the Universe, while regular matter makes up less than 20%. Learning more about this mysterious unseen matter is one of the main science goals of Rubin Observatory. In fact, our original name was the Dark Matter Telescope!

She made observations that influenced the whole science community—permanently

Vera Rubin was convinced that physicists would figure out what this invisible matter was within ten years of her observations, but dark matter has proven much more elusive than that. Scientists have spent the past decades on a quest to figure out what dark matter is and what role it plays in sculpting the structure of the Universe. Physicists try to identify its nature using labs here on Earth, while astronomers continue to make observations of dark matter's gravitational influence on other objects in space. Essentially, Vera Rubin's work created a whole new subfield of astrophysics, around a brand new idea.

Rubin Observatory data will lead to an enormous number of brand new observations, and scientists can't wait! Rubin Observatory will reveal objects in space that have never been seen before and will catch objects that change in position or brightness that other telescopes miss. Will Rubin Observatory create whole new subfields of astrophysics? It's certainly possible!

She used the most state-of-the-art technology available to answer existing scientific questions and inspire brand new ones

In 1965, Vera Rubin was working at the Carnegie Institution's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington, DC. There, she met Kent Ford, an astronomer who had built the most sensitive spectrometer in existence to measure how much light different objects gave off at different wavelengths (or colors). Some of their groundbreaking work studying galaxy rotations used this spectrometer, which was attached to the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, AZ, and some of the work was done at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ.

Rubin Observatory is full of cutting-edge technology, including the largest and most sensitive digital camera ever built, the first telescope with a unique three-mirror design, and data pipelines that move the data from a remote mountaintop in Chile to locations all around the world. Thanks to these pipelines, scientists access Rubin Observatory data online from their own computers. We're sure that Vera Rubin, who flew back and forth across the country to make observations and analyzed data from punch cards, would have appreciated that!

She advocated for women in science

Vera Rubin, whose career began in the 1960s, faced a lot of barriers simply because she was a woman. She balanced her work with raising children at a time when most women just didn't do that. She persisted in studying science when her male advisors told her she shouldn't. And she insisted on observing at facilities that had never allowed women to observe there before. Her strength in overcoming these challenges is admirable on its own, but Vera worked even harder to help other women navigate what was, during her career, a very male-dominated field.

Science is still a male-dominated field, but Rubin Observatory is working hard to change that. And it’s not just women who have been (and are still) excluded from science--it’s also people of color, non-binary people, people with disabilities, and people from disadvantaged socioeconomic circumstances too. Rubin Observatory welcomes everyone who wants to contribute to science, and takes steps to lower or eliminate barriers that exclude those with less privilege.

Vera herself offers an excellent example of what can happen when more minds participate in science, and we're proud to honor her every time our facility is called by its name: Vera C. Rubin Observatory.

Want to learn more about Vera Rubin? We suggest this biographical memoir by Neta A. Bahcall.

Related content

Circular loader icon