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Heroes of Space: Vera Rubin

26 Mar 2018, 02:00 UTC
Heroes of Space: Vera Rubin Volker Springel/Max Planck Institute For Astrophysics/SPL

Vera Rubin was born in Philadelphia, USA in 1928. Her father worked as an electrical engineer, her mother for the Bell Telephone Company and her sister pursued a career as an administrative judge. Rubin was different, however, and was always fascinated by physics and astronomy.

In 1965, she successfully became the first woman to be granted permission to use the instruments at Palomar Observatory, California. In the same year, Rubin successfully secured a position at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, where she began work on galaxy clusters – what she found was even more extraordinary than her previous work and would have consequences for our understanding of today’s cosmos. When Rubin observed her galaxies, she found that their rotation curves didn’t match up to theory. What could the explanation be? Little did she know, she had found the first indicator for dark matter, an elusive material believed to make up around 25 per cent of the “missing” mass of the universe. Rubin knew that her new findings would be criticised and so, in a bid to avoid it, she decided to slant her research more towards the study of the rotation curves of singular galaxies, rather than the wildly debated galaxy clusters. She began her research with our closest spiral, the Andromeda galaxy.

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