Pioneering astrophysicist Vera Rubin, whose early career included groundbreaking progress at Palomar Observatory in northeastern San Diego County, died Sunday at the age of 88, according to reports.
Rubin is perhaps best remembered as the scientist who first theorized that dark matter was present in the universe, but she is also known for crushing barriers in a field once completely dominated by men.
In the mid-1960s, after she earned her master’s degree from Cornell and her doctorate from Georgetown University, she was working at Palomar Observatory. Standard practice at the time was to bar women from using the nation’s major telescopes, according to a report from the Los Angeles Times.
“I first observed at Palomar one long dark December night in 1965,” the LA Times reported Rubin once saying. “My assigned bedroom was on the second floor of the dormitory, and there was a velvet rope at the first floor, blocking the stairs. When an astronomer asked why the rope was there, the answer was ‘because Vera Rubin is upstairs.’”
Sandra Faber, an astronomy professor emerita at UC Santa Cruz, spent a summer working with Rubin before graduate school, according to the paper.
“She was the first woman I encountered at that level,” Faber told the LA Times.
The concept of dark matter, though long proposed, had limited evidence behind it in the 1970s when Rubin and colleague Kent Ford were studying the subtleties of dim light reaching Earth from distant galaxies, the LA Times reported.
Her uncovering of evidence for dark matter revealed that “there’s much more out there than we would expect based on our common-sense experience,” James Bullock, professor of physics and astronomy at UC Irvine told the paper. “Today, the standard interpretation is that 80 percent of matter is in this form that’s different than anything that is known to science. And without this dark matter, a lot of other things about the universe don’t make sense: Galaxies themselves wouldn’t exist; stars wouldn’t exist, and we would not exist.”
Rubin was born Vera Cooper on July 23, 1928, in Philadelphia. She attended Vassar College, and in the summer of 1947 met Robert J. Rubin, whom she married when she was 19 and he was 21. They had four children together and all of them earned doctorates, according to the LA Times report.
Rubin was only the second woman astronomer elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In 1993, she received the National Medal of Science, the country’s highest scientific award, according to the LA Times. The paper also reported that Rubin worked for decades at the Washington, D.C.-based Carnegie Institution for Science.
Rubin died in the Princeton, N.J., area after a long period of declining health, according to the report.