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Pioneering Jewish astronomer Vera Rubin dies aged 88

Scientist who found evidence of the universe’s dark matter saw no conflict between her scientific work and her faith

Astronomer Vera Rubin in 1974 (Carnegie Institution of Washington)
Astronomer Vera Rubin in 1974 (Carnegie Institution of Washington)

PRINCETON, New Jersey — A pioneering astronomer who helped find powerful evidence of dark matter has died. Vera Rubin, who described herself as a religious Jew, was 88.

Allan Rubin said Monday his mother died of natural causes on Sunday. He said the Philadelphia native had been living in the Princeton, New Jersey, area.

In a 1996 interview with the Catholic EWTN network Rubin said that she identifies as a religious Jew and did not see her faith as in conflict with her work.

“In my own life, my science and my religion are separate. I’m Jewish, and so religion to me is a kind of moral code and a kind of history. I try to do my science in a moral way, and, I believe that, ideally, science should be looked upon as something that helps us understand our role in the universe,” she was quoted as saying.

Vera Rubin (courtesy)
Vera Rubin (courtesy)

Rubin, and Kent Ford, who is now 82, observed evidence for the existence of dark matter, the mysterious, undetectable hypothetical substance of which most of the universe is believed to be made. They found that galaxies don’t quite rotate the way they were predicted, and that lent support to the theory that some other force is at work, namely dark matter.

Dark matter, which hasn’t been directly observed, makes up 27 percent of universe — as opposed to 5 percent of the universe being normal matter. Scientists better understand what dark matter isn’t rather than what it is.

Dutch astronomer Jan Oort and Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky first came up with the notion that there was more matter in the universe than meets the eye when they observed some stars moving faster than expected, suggesting additional gravitational pull from an unseen source. Zwick used the German phrase dunkle Materie — dark matter — because whatever was causing the additional gravity couldn’t be seen.

In the 1970s, Ford and Rubin measured faster than expected orbital speed of outer galaxy stars and used their observations to show evidence of dark matter that emits no electromagnetic radiation or visible light, making it very hard to identify.

Images of six different galaxy clusters taken with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope (blue) and Chandra X-ray Observatory (pink) in a study of how dark matter in clusters of galaxies behaves when the clusters collide. (CC BY NASA and ESA, Flickr)
Images of six different galaxy clusters taken with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (blue) and Chandra X-ray Observatory (pink) in a study of how dark matter in clusters of galaxies behaves when the clusters collide. (CC BY NASA and ESA, Flickr)

To date, scientists have never actually seen or isolated any dark matter and are only able to observe the influence its gravity has on the universe.

Born in 1928, Rubin earned her masters degree in physics at Cornell University. In 1996, she was awarded a Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, becoming the first woman to win the honor in over 160 years.

The same year she was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Vatican’s scientific academy.

Rubin’s father, Philip Cooper, was born Pesach Kobchefski in Lithuania and was an electrical engineer. Her mother, Rose Applebaum, originally came from Bessarabia, which today is modern-day Moldova, and worked for Bell Telephone Company.

Rubin’s scientific achievements earned her numerous honors, including becoming the second female astronomer to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Rubin and Kent had long made the list as top choices to win the Nobel Prize for Physics, and with each passing year, predictions that they would finally be picked by the Swedish Academy of Science had increased. The prize is not awarded posthumously.

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