Vera Rubin passed away a few weeks ago. This was not surprising: she had lived a long, positive, and fruitful life, but had faced the usual health problems of those of us who make it to the upper 80s. Though news of her death was not surprising, it was deeply saddening. It affected me more than I had anticipated, even armed with the intellectual awareness that the inevitable must be approaching. It saddens me again now trying to write this, which must inevitably be an inadequate tribute.
In the days after Vera Rubin passed away, I received a number of inquiries from the press asking me to comment on her life and work for their various programs. I did not respond. I guess I understand the need to recognize and remark on the passing of a great scientist and human being, and I’m glad the press did in fact acknowledge her many accomplishments. But I wondered if, by responding, I would be providing a tribute to Vera, or merely feeding the needs of the never-ending hyperactive news cycle. Both, I guess. At any rate, I did not feel it was my place to comment. It did not seem right to air my voice where hers would never be heard again.
I knew Vera reasonably well, but there are plenty who knew her better and were her colleagues over a longer period of time. Also, at the back of my mind, I was a tiny bit afraid that no matter what I said, someone would read into it some sort of personal scientific agenda. My reticence did not preclude other scientists who knew her considerably less well from doing exactly that. Perhaps it is unavoidable: to speak of others, one must still use one’s own voice, and that inevitably is colored by our own perspective. I mention this because many of the things recently written about Vera do not do justice to her scientific opinions as I know them from conversations with her. This is important, because Vera was all about the science.
One thing I distinctly remembering her saying to me, and I’m sure she repeated this advice to many other junior scientists, was that you had to do science because you had a need to Know. It was not something to be done for awards or professional advancement; you could not expect any sort of acknowledgement and would likely be disappointed if you did. You had to do it because you wanted to find out how things work, to have even a brief moment when you felt like you understood some tiny fraction of the wonders of the universe.
Despite this attitude, Vera was very well rewarded for her science. It came late in her career – she did devote a lot of energy to raising a large family; she and her husband Bob Rubin were true life partners in the ideal sense of the term: family came first, and they always supported each other. It was deeply saddening when Bob passed, and another blow to science when their daughter Judy passed away all too early. We all die, sometimes sooner rather than later, but few of us take it well.
Professionally, Vera was all about the science. Work was like breathing. Something you just did; doing it was its own reward. Vera always seemed to take great joy in it. Success, in terms of awards, came late, but it did come, and in many prestigious forms – membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, and the National Medal of Science, to name a few of her well-deserved honors. Much has been made of the fact that this list does not include a Nobel Prize, but I never heard Vera express disappointment about that, or even aspiration to it. Quite the contrary, she, like most modest people, didn’t seem to consider it to be appropriate. I think part of the reason for this was that she self-identified as an astronomer, not as a physicist (as some publications mis-report). That distinction is worthy of an entire post so I’ll leave it for now.
Astronomer though she was, her work certainly had an outsized impact on physics. I have written before as to why she was deserving of a Nobel Prize, if for slightly different reasons than others give. But I do not dread that she died in any way disappointed by the lack of a Nobel Prize. It was not her nature to fret about such things.
Nevertheless, Vera was an obvious scientist to recognize with a Nobel Prize. No knowledgeable scientist would have disputed her as a choice. And yet the history of the physics Nobel prize is incredibly lacking in female laureates (see definition 4). Only two women have been recognized in the entire history of the award: Marie Curie (1903) and Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1963). She was an obvious woman to have honored in this way. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the awarding of the prize is inherently sexist. Based on two data points, it has become more sexist over time, as there is a longer gap between now and the last award to a woman (63 years) than between the two awards (60 years).
Why should gender play any role in the search for knowledge? Or the recognition of discoveries made in that search? And yet women scientists face antiquated attitudes and absurd barriers all the time. Not just in the past. Now.
Vera was always a strong advocate of women in science. She has been an inspiration to many. A Nobel prize awarded to Vera Rubin would have been great for her, yes, but the greater tragedy of this missed opportunity is what it would have meant to all the women who are scientists now and who will be in the future.
Well, those are meta-issues raised by Vera’s passing. I don’t think it is inappropriate, because these were issues dear to her heart. I know the world is a better place for her efforts. But I hadn’t intended to go off on meta-tangents. Vera was a very real, warm, positive human being. So I what I had meant to do was recollect a few personal anecdotes. These seem so inadequate: brief snippets in a long and expansive life. Worse, they are my memories, so I can’t see how to avoid making it at least somewhat about me when it should be entirely about her. Still. Here are a few of the memories I have of her.
I first met Vera in 1985 on Kitt Peak. In retrospect I can’t imagine a more appropriate setting. But at the time it was only my second observing run, and I had no clue as to what was normal or particularly who Vera Rubin was. She was just another astronomer at the dinner table before a night of observing.
A very curious astronomer. She kindly asked what I was working on, and followed up with a series of perceptive questions. She really wanted to know. Others have remarked on her ability to make junior people feel important, and she could indeed do that. But I don’t think she tried, in particular. She was just genuinely curious.
At the time, I was a senior about to graduate from MIT. I had to beg permission to take some finals late so I could attend this observing run. My advisor, X-ray astronomer George Whipple Clark, kindly bragged about how I had actually got my thesis in on time (most students took advantage of a default one-week grace period) in order to travel to Kitt Peak. Vera, ever curious, asked about my thesis, what galaxies were involved, how the data were obtained… all had been from a run the semester before. As this became clear, Vera got this bemused look and asked “What kind of thesis can be written from a single observing run?” “A senior thesis!” I volunteered: undergraduate observers were rare on the mountain in those days; up till that point I think she had assumed I was a grad student.
I encountered Vera occasionally over the following years, but only in passing. In 1995, she offered me a Carnegie fellowship at DTM. This was a reprieve in a tight job market. As it happened, we were both visiting the Kapteyn Institute, and Renzo Sancisi had invited us both to dinner, so she took the opportunity to explain that their initial hire had moved on to a faculty position so the fellowship was open again. She managed to do this without making me feel like an also-ran. I had recently become interested in MOND, and here was the queen of dark matter offering me a job I desperately needed. It seemed right to warn her, so I did: would she have a problem with a postdoc who worked on MOND? She was visibly shocked, but only for an instant. “Of course not,” she said. “As a Carnegie Fellow, you can work on whatever you want.”
Vera was very supportive throughout my time at DTM, and afterwards. We had many positive scientific interactions, but we didn’t really work together then. I tried to get her interested in the rotation curves of low surface brightness galaxies, but she had a full plate. It wasn’t until a couple of years after I left DTM that we started collaborating.
Vera loved to measure. The reason I chose the picture featured at top is that it shows her doing what she loved. By the time we collaborated, she had moved on to using a computer to measure line positions for velocities. But that is what she loved to do. She did all the measurements for the rotation curves we measured, like the ones shown above. As the junior person, I had expected to do all that work, but she wanted to do it. Then she handed it on to me to write up, with no expectation of credit. It was like she was working for me as a postdoc. Vera Rubin was an awesome postdoc!
She also loved to observe. Mostly that was a typically positive, fruitful experience. But she did have an intense edge that rarely peaked out. One night on Las Campanas, the telescope broke. This is not unusual, and we took it in stride. For a half hour or so. Then Vera started calmly but assertively asking the staff why we were not yet back up and working. Something was very wrong, and it involved calling in extra technicians who led us into the mechanical bowels of the du Pont telescope, replete with steel cables and unidentifiable steam-punk looking artifacts. Vera watched them like a hawk. She never said a negative word. But she silently, intently watched them. Tension mounted; time slowed to a crawl till it seemed that I could feel like a hard rain the impact of every photon that we weren’t collecting. She wanted those photons. Never said a negative word, but I’m sure the staff felt a wall of pressure that I was keenly aware of merely standing in its proximity. Perhaps like a field mouse under a raptor’s scrutiny.
Vera was not normally like that, but every good observer has in her that urgency to get on sky. This was the only time I saw it come out. Other typical instrumental guffaws she bore in stride. This one took too long. But it did get fixed, and we were back on sky, and it was as if there had never been a problem in the world.
Ultimately, Vera loved the science. She was one of the most intrinsically curious souls I ever met. She wanted to know, to find out what was going on up there. But she was also content with what the universe chose to share, reveling in the little discoveries as much as the big ones. Why does the Hα emission extend so far out in UGC 2885? What is the kinematic major axis of DDO 154, anyway? Let’s put the slit in a few different positions and work it out. She kept a cheat sheet taped on her desk for how the rotation curve changed if the position angle were missed – which never happened, because she prepared so carefully for observing runs. She was both thorough and extremely good at what she did.
Vera was very positive about the discoveries of others. Like all good astronomers, she had a good BS detector. But she very rarely said a negative word. Rarely, not never. She was not a fan of Chandrasekhar, who was the editor of the ApJ when she submitted her dissertation paper there. Her advisor, Gamow, had posed the question to her, is there a length scale in the sky? Her answer would, in the modern parlance, be called the correlation length of galaxies. Chandrasekhar declined to consider publishing this work, explaining in a letter that he had a student working on the topic, and she should wait for the right answer. The clear implication was that this was a man’s job, and the work of a woman was not to be trusted. Ultimately her work was published in the proceedings of the National Academy, of which Gamow was a member. He had predicted that this is how Chandrasekhar would behave, afterwards sending her a postcard saying only “Told you so.”
On another occasion, in the mid-90s when “standard” CDM meant SCDM with Ωm = 1, not ΛCDM, she confided to me in hushed tones that the dark matter had to be baryonic. Other eminent dynamicists have said the same thing to me at times, always in the same hushed tones, lest the cosmologists overhear. As well they might. To my ears this was an absurdity, and I know well the derision it would bring. What about Big Bang Nucleosynthesis? This was the only time I recall hearing Vera scoff. “If I told the theorists today that I could prove Ωm = 1, tomorrow they would explain that away.”
I was unconvinced. But it made clear to me that I put a lot of faith in Big Bang Nucleosynthesis, and this need not be true for all intelligent scientists. Vera – and the others I allude to, who still live so I won’t name – had good reasons for her assertion. She had already recognized that there was a connection between the baryon distribution and the dynamics of galaxies, and that this made a lot more sense if the dark and luminous component were closely related – for example, if the dark matter – or at least some important fraction of it in galaxies – were itself baryonic. Even if we believe in Big Bang Nucleosynthesis, we’re still missing a lot of baryons.
The proper interpretation of this evidence is still debated today. What I learned from this was to be more open to the possibility that things I thought I knew for sure might turn out to be wrong. After all, that pretty much sums up the history of cosmology.
It was widely reported that Vera discovered dark matter or “proved” or “confirmed” its existence. I don’t think Vera would agree with this assessment, nor would many of her colleagues at DTM. I know this because we talked about it. A lot.
To my mind, what Vera discovered is both more specific and more profound than the dark matter paradigm it helped to create. What she discovered observationally is that rotation curves are very nearly flat, and continue to be so to indefinitely large radius. Over and over again, for every galaxy in the sky. It is a law of nature for galaxies, akin to Kepler’s laws for planets. Dark matter is an inference, a subsidiary result. It is just one possible interpretation, a subset of amazing and seemingly unlikely possibilities opened up by her discovery.
The discovery itself is amazing enough without conflating it with dark matter or MOND or any other flavor of interpretation of which the reader might be fond. Like many great discoveries, it has many parents. I would give a lot of credit to Albert Bosma, but there are also others who had early results, like Mort Roberts and Seth Shostak. But it was Vera whose persistence overcame the knee-jerk conservatism of cosmologists like Sandage, who she said dismissed her early flat rotation curve of M31 (obtained in collaboration with Roberts) as “the effect of looking at a bright galaxy.” “What does that even mean?” she asked me rhetorically. She also recalled Jim Gunn gasping “But… that would mean most of the mass is dark!” Indeed. It takes time to wrap our heads around these things. She obtained rotation curve after rotation curve in excess of a hundred to ensure we realized we had to do so.
Vera realized the interpretation was never as settled as the data. Her attitude (and that of many of us, including myself) is nicely summarized by her exchange with Tohline at the end of her 1982 talk at IAU 100. One starts with the most conservative – or at least, least outrageous – possibility, which at that time was a mere factor of two in hidden mass, which could easily have been baryonic. Yet much more more recently, at the last conference I attended with her (in 2009), she reminded the audience (to some visible consternation) that it was still “early days” for dark matter, and we should not be surprised to be surprised – up to, and including, how gravity works.
At this juncture, I expect some readers will accuse me of what I warned about above: using this for my own agenda. I have found it is impossible to avoid having an agenda imputed to me by people who don’t like what they imagine my agenda to be, whether they imagine right or not – usually not. But I can’t not say these things if I want to set the record straight – these were Vera’s words. She remained concerned all along that it might be gravity to blame rather than dark matter. Not convinced, nor even giving either the benefit of the doubt. There was, and remains, so much to figure out.
I suppose, in the telling, it is often more interesting to relate matters of conflict and disagreement than feelings of goodwill. In that regards, some of the above anecdotes are atypical: Vera was a very positive person. It just isn’t compelling to relate episodes like her gushing praise for Rodrigo Ibata’s discovery of the Sagittarius dwarf satellite galaxy. I probably only remember that myself because I had, like Rodrigo, encountered considerable difficulty in convincing some at Cambridge that there could be lots of undiscovered low surface brightness galaxies out there, even in the Local Group. Some of these same people now seem to take for granted that there are a lot more in the Local Group than I find plausible.
I have been fortunate in my life to have known many talented scientists. I have met many people from many nations, most of them warm, wonderful human beings. Vera was the best of the best, both as a scientist and as a human being. The world is a better place for having had her in it, for a time.