In Memoriam: Vera Florence Cooper Rubin, 1928-2016

Vera Rubin, a pioneering astrophysicist who confirmed the existence of black matter in the universe, died on Christmas Day in Princeton, New Jersey. She was 88 years old.

A native of Philadelphia, Rubin graduated from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1948. She was the only astronomy major in her graduating class. Seeking to obtain a Ph.D. in astronomy at Princeton University, Rubin was denied admission due to her gender. Instead she went on to earn a master’s degree at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and a Ph.D. at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

After teaching at Georgetown University, she accepted a position at the Carnegie Institute in Washington, D.C. There, working with astronomer Kent Ford, Dr. Rubin determined that the speed of stars in outer regions of galaxies could not be explained unless there were some unseen “dark matter” that affected the gravitational pull on these stars. She estimated that this dark matter made up 90 percent of the mass in these galaxies.

Dr. Rubin was the first woman permitted to use the Palomar Observatory operated by the California Institute of Technology. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and was given the National Medal of Science by President Clinton.

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