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Vera Rubin: A Life

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The first biography of a pioneering scientist who made significant contributions to our understanding of dark matter and championed the advancement of women in science. One of the great lingering mysteries of the universe is dark matter. Scientists are not sure what it is, but most believe it's out there, and in abundance. The astronomer who finally convinced many of them w The first biography of a pioneering scientist who made significant contributions to our understanding of dark matter and championed the advancement of women in science. One of the great lingering mysteries of the universe is dark matter. Scientists are not sure what it is, but most believe it's out there, and in abundance. The astronomer who finally convinced many of them was Vera Rubin. When Rubin died in 2016, she was regarded as one of the most influential astronomers of her era. Her research on the rotation of spiral galaxies was groundbreaking, and her observations contributed significantly to the confirmation of dark matter, a most notable achievement. In Vera Rubin: A Life, prolific science writers Jacqueline Mitton and Simon Mitton provide a detailed, accessible overview of Rubin's work, showing how she leveraged immense curiosity, profound intelligence, and novel technologies to help transform our understanding of the cosmos. But Rubin's impact was not limited to her contributions to scientific knowledge. She also helped to transform scientific practice by promoting the careers of women researchers. Not content to be an inspiration, Rubin was a mentor and a champion. She advocated for hiring women faculty, inviting women speakers to major conferences, and honoring women with awards that were historically the exclusive province of men. Rubin's papers and correspondence yield vivid insights into her life and work, as she faced down gender discrimination and met the demands of family and research throughout a long and influential career. Deftly written, with both scientific experts and general readers in mind, Vera Rubin is a portrait of a woman with insatiable curiosity about the universe who never stopped asking questions and encouraging other women to do the same.


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The first biography of a pioneering scientist who made significant contributions to our understanding of dark matter and championed the advancement of women in science. One of the great lingering mysteries of the universe is dark matter. Scientists are not sure what it is, but most believe it's out there, and in abundance. The astronomer who finally convinced many of them w The first biography of a pioneering scientist who made significant contributions to our understanding of dark matter and championed the advancement of women in science. One of the great lingering mysteries of the universe is dark matter. Scientists are not sure what it is, but most believe it's out there, and in abundance. The astronomer who finally convinced many of them was Vera Rubin. When Rubin died in 2016, she was regarded as one of the most influential astronomers of her era. Her research on the rotation of spiral galaxies was groundbreaking, and her observations contributed significantly to the confirmation of dark matter, a most notable achievement. In Vera Rubin: A Life, prolific science writers Jacqueline Mitton and Simon Mitton provide a detailed, accessible overview of Rubin's work, showing how she leveraged immense curiosity, profound intelligence, and novel technologies to help transform our understanding of the cosmos. But Rubin's impact was not limited to her contributions to scientific knowledge. She also helped to transform scientific practice by promoting the careers of women researchers. Not content to be an inspiration, Rubin was a mentor and a champion. She advocated for hiring women faculty, inviting women speakers to major conferences, and honoring women with awards that were historically the exclusive province of men. Rubin's papers and correspondence yield vivid insights into her life and work, as she faced down gender discrimination and met the demands of family and research throughout a long and influential career. Deftly written, with both scientific experts and general readers in mind, Vera Rubin is a portrait of a woman with insatiable curiosity about the universe who never stopped asking questions and encouraging other women to do the same.

38 review for Vera Rubin: A Life

  1. 4 out of 5

    Nicole Barbaro

    An amazing book about a true scientific pioneer. Wonderfully written, engaging, and enlightening. Highly recommend.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    Over the course of a long and productive career, Vera Rubin proved a pioneer in a number of important respects. As an astronomer, she was one of the first to study spiral galaxies, and her work helped convince scientists of the existence of dark matter. As a woman living in America in the mid-20th century, she forged a career in the sciences at a time when few women did so – and even fewer of whom did so while married and raising a family. To have done either was noteworthy. To have done both wa Over the course of a long and productive career, Vera Rubin proved a pioneer in a number of important respects. As an astronomer, she was one of the first to study spiral galaxies, and her work helped convince scientists of the existence of dark matter. As a woman living in America in the mid-20th century, she forged a career in the sciences at a time when few women did so – and even fewer of whom did so while married and raising a family. To have done either was noteworthy. To have done both was truly remarkable. To tell the story of Rubin’s life properly it is important to incorporate both of these achievements into it. And this is what Jacqueline and Simon Mitton do in their biography of the astronomer. As accomplished astronomers and scientific authors in their own right, they bring to it both their shared expertise in the subject and their experience with explaining it in a way that is accessible to the lay reader. Both skills are on full display in their retelling of Rubin’s contributions and the odds she overcame in order to make them. Why Rubin became an astronomer, as the Mittons explain, was entirely due to her sister Ruth’s choice of beds. When the Rubin family moved into their new home in Washington D.C. in 1939, Ruth’s choice of the bed next to the wall left Vera with the one by the window. Staring at the night sky sparked Vera’s curiosity, leading her to embark upon her own amateur explorations. Such was her determination that she plowed through the obstacles so common to women interested in science – the discouragement of a high school physics instructor, the challenges of attending college in an era when most women didn’t, the expectation of many of the professionals whom she encountered that she would give up on her career once she got married. Even when Rubin did get married and had four children, this imposed only a pause on her path towards becoming an astronomer. One of the factors working in Rubin’s favor was the growing support given to astronomy after the Second World War. Thanks to it, she was able to find part-time employment working on federally funded research projects to observe solar activity. Yet Rubin’s interests extended far beyond the Solar System, as her passion was for understanding galaxies themselves. It was when she gained a post at the Carnegie Institution of Washington that Rubin was able at last to focus on her passion for observational astronomy. Over the next several years Rubin studied galactic expansion and the rotation of galaxies, with her calculations on the latter subsequently providing the first evidence of dark matter. Not only do the Mitton’s description of Rubin’s scientific work help to understand what she accomplished, but the role she played in helping us to better understand the universe. It is the sheer scale of this which probably renders it her greatest achievement, which is not to diminish Rubin’s considerable activism (especially in her later years) for women’s equality in the sciences. Either achievement justifies her biography; taken together they make for a account of an accomplished life that is well worth reading.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Ricardo

    Vera Cooper Rubin es justamente famosa por su trabajo en curvas de rotación de galaxias espirales, generalmente tomada como la evidencia más clara para la existencia de la materia oscura. La historia, tanto la de la vida y carrera de Rubin, así como la interpretación de las curvas de rotación, da para mucho más que eso, y esta biografía le hace justicia a ambas. La historia de Vera Rubin se aleja muchísimo de la narrativa tradicional del genio solitario y torturado. Al contrario, su vida y carre Vera Cooper Rubin es justamente famosa por su trabajo en curvas de rotación de galaxias espirales, generalmente tomada como la evidencia más clara para la existencia de la materia oscura. La historia, tanto la de la vida y carrera de Rubin, así como la interpretación de las curvas de rotación, da para mucho más que eso, y esta biografía le hace justicia a ambas. La historia de Vera Rubin se aleja muchísimo de la narrativa tradicional del genio solitario y torturado. Al contrario, su vida y carrera son profundamente relatable. Su tesis doctoral no cambió la historia de la física como la de Cecilia Payne (cf. What Stars are Made of: The Life of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin), ni fue un prodigio de la astrofísica como Chandrasekhar (c.f. Chandra: A Biography of S. Chandrasekhar).  Es mas, ni siquiera le gustaba mucho la fisica! Algo que la biografía deja claro es que el avance científico nunca se hace solo. Si bien mucha gente le puso obstáculos en el camino, en definitiva fueron más los que la ayudaron: sus padres y su esposo Bob en toda la crianza de sus 4 hijos; y los distintos mentores y colaboradores a lo largo de su carrera, con especial énfasis en la figura de Kent Ford, el inventor de la cámara y espectrógrafo con que Rubin hizo sus descubrimientos más famosos, y con quien escribió varias decenas de papers. It takes a village. Algo que se agradece un montón, es que además de relatar minuciosamente sus investigaciones en dinámica de galaxias espirales, también otorga una descripción bastante detallada de todos los campos en que Rubin incursionó: estructura a gran escala, la dinámica de grupos compactos, counter-rotating cores, SMBHs. Incluso aquellos tópicos en que ella solo fue asistente de investigación al comienzo de su carrera. La biografía además se aleja completamente de una hagiografía, y no se arredra en mencionar episodios que la misma Rubin omitió en sus semblanzas autobiográficas (e.g. Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters ), ni en mencionar los momentos en que ella tal vez fue más políticamente correcta que la situación ameritaba. Como justo hoy me toco referar un paper, no puedo dejar de criticar una omisión importantísima, quizás la única que comete este libro. Las curvas de rotación plana de galaxias espirales no son necesariamente evidencia de materia oscura, sino que alternativamente pueden indicar que la gravedad no se comporta como creemos. La misma Vera Rubin se inclinaba más por esta última alternativa en sus años postreros. Entre descubrir una partícula subatómica nueva o demostrar que Einstein estaba equivocado, que preferirian ustedes? 🙂 Para finalizar les dejo una foto de la conferencia que se hizo en su honor para su cumpleanos numero 81. Algunos la reconocerán en la primera fila, pero solo los verdaderamente iniciados sabrán donde aparezco yo n_n

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jean-René Roy

    Vera Rubin, A Life Jacqueline Mitton and Simon Mitton, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2021 by Jean-René Roy Vera Rubin was one of the outstanding astronomers of the 20th century. Jacqueline and Simon Mitton have written a solidly researched and outstanding biography of a remarkable woman scientist. The concise title Vera Rubin, A Life reflects the dynamic, assertive and no-nonsense person Vera Rubin was. She spent most of career at the Department of Magnetism (DTM) of the Carnegie Insti Vera Rubin, A Life Jacqueline Mitton and Simon Mitton, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2021 by Jean-René Roy Vera Rubin was one of the outstanding astronomers of the 20th century. Jacqueline and Simon Mitton have written a solidly researched and outstanding biography of a remarkable woman scientist. The concise title Vera Rubin, A Life reflects the dynamic, assertive and no-nonsense person Vera Rubin was. She spent most of career at the Department of Magnetism (DTM) of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Working closely with her DTM colleague Kent Ford, Rubin observed hundreds of galaxies. Using spectroscopy, they mapped the velocities of the stars and gas clouds orbiting the center of these giant star systems; they used the Doppler-Fizeau effect, by which receding or approaching motions shift the spectral lines of objects allowing to derive precise relative velocities. To do so efficiently, Rubin and Ford used the new technology of image amplification developed at the DTM during the 1970s. This optoelectronic device allows to transform photons into accelerated electrons; hitting a fluorescent surface exposed to a small photographic plates. They later used a then new electronic imager, now known as CCDs. Rubin and Ford were able conduct spectroscopic observations of the much fainter regions of the outer disks of galaxies. They mapped orbiting velocities further in galactocentric distances than it had been done before. Having image intensifiers mounted on several large telescopes in the United States and in Chile, they conducted a systematic program gathering hundreds of rotation curves of galaxies. Carefully reducing their observations, Rubin and Ford faced a stunning result. In the solar system, the more distant a planet is from the Sun, the slower is its orbital speed; the same was expected at the galactic scale. Instead, Rubin found that the velocities remain constant far away from the center, and in some cases increased! Rubin Ford and new collaborators gather many more “flat” rotation curves. Their interpretation was unsettling: there were several times more galactic mass than implied by luminous matter. This led to the uncomfortable concept of missing mass or dark matter. Rubin and Ford remained cautious: when told she had discovered dark matter, Rubin always temporized. She emphasized the quality of the data, not the interpretation – perhaps a remnant of her phobia for physics. In the 1930s, Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky had found a similar result in the much larger systems of galaxy clusters. Today, one can be appreciative of Vera's caution with regard to the interpretation of flat rotation curves in terms of dark matter. She knew she did not “discovered” dark matter, as DM is a hypothesis, at best a postulate to explain observations of physical systems that show behaviors deviating from Newtonian gravitation theory. If we ever got rid of concepts such as dark matter and energy, Rubin & Ford rotation curves will remain as monuments of solid data. Mittons’ biography also describes the diversity of Rubin’s early work. She carried out almost “suicidal” thesis projects, e.g. the role of turbulence in the distribution of galaxies, and the rotation of the universe. One wonders why she was sent nonchalantly onto such risky paths in the 1950s… She handled these "out of the blue" topics quite elegantly in the end. One also learns that Vera worked on solar eclipse data for the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories under a contract Father Hayden of the Georgetown University had with the agency. Eclipse data was to help measure the Earth’s dimension with the highest precision, needed for targeting intercontinental missiles. Vera’s time at Georgetown, teaching and doing research under the disorganized Father Francis Heyden, was challenging; everybody there appeared to be always late in projects, overworked and looking for breath. I strongly feel that these demanding times were very formative years, and made Vera the combative woman scientist she had to be in order to break through barriers and be respected. The book presents a rightful balance between personal, societal events and a very productive scientific life. Several chapters are devoted to Vera’s astronomy and her key research projects. Many scientists have written about how they achieved their dreams, and about the crucial of a parent or teacher. The Mittons show that Rubin is a clear demonstration of the importance of the role of parents, spouse and friends. Vera’s husband, Robert Rubin himself a leading scientist, was constant and solid in his support. Despite a poor and unsupportive physics teacher in high school, Vera persisted. Unfortunately, the experience stigmatized her attitude toward the field, an almost visceral reaction, to the point she insisted to be called an astronomer and not an "astrophysicist". Vera's close relation with Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge, both eminent astrophysicists, early in her career and more close-knit with Margaret later, played a significant role in her intellectual development. The episode where Vera Rubin asks for a job at Department of Terrestrial Magnetism is just stunning; it is a “polaroid” portrait of a spirited and determined person. If gender bias comes through very often as subtle and insidious in Vera’s career, the cases of the Washington D.C. Cosmos Club and events there involving Vera are just blatant. It is no surprise that she, working with Margaret Burbidge, were leaders in defending woman scientists and promoting their value as full blown researchers, capable to occupy the highest functions of scientific leadership and organizational management. With obvious examples, the Mittons highlight the short memory we all have about our past. Oral histories, such as those finely recorded by the American Institute of Physics, or autobiographical articles, as those published in the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics may miss important elements of an active scientific life. Written material, letters and research notes that have been archived remain essential to avoid blind spots and to grasp any individual in full. The book is a mine of gold nuggets that peppered the life of a great scientist who had an eventful and very productive career. Vera Rubin has been an outstanding scientist and Mittons’ book does full justice to this great woman astronomer. The reviewer is a retired astrophysicist. He also writes about the history of astronomy - recently Unveiling Galaxies, The Role of Images in Astronomical Discovery (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and Trente images qui ont révélé l’univers, de La Lune à l’aube cosmique (Presses de l’Université Laval, 2019).

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jihyuk Bok

    Vera Rubin was an astronomer whose research has transformed our understanding of the cosmic universe. One of her famous researches is about the rotation of galaxies in which the result has confirmed the existence of dark matter. By this, we have now known that almost 80 percent of matters in our universe are in the form we can’t detect yet. Vera never lightly made a conclusion on the scientific topic. She has rather devoted most of her career to observe the galaxies and analyze the vast amount o Vera Rubin was an astronomer whose research has transformed our understanding of the cosmic universe. One of her famous researches is about the rotation of galaxies in which the result has confirmed the existence of dark matter. By this, we have now known that almost 80 percent of matters in our universe are in the form we can’t detect yet. Vera never lightly made a conclusion on the scientific topic. She has rather devoted most of her career to observe the galaxies and analyze the vast amount of data that requiring from theoretical works. Only after she had firmly convinced herself with enough evidence, she made a conclusion on the topic. Not only she made great scientific achievements but also often spoke out for women whose careers have been discriminated against on their sex. She had well known that how so many female scientists have lost their opportunity because of absurd reasons, such as some research institutes are not allowed for "women". Undertaking a lengthy fight for gender equality, she and many advocates have successfully brought historical changes from many scientific organizations which would ensure gender parity in the future. I can’t help but fathom what enabled Vera’s successful career all the while she gave birth to 4 children. In one famous Korean novel, [“Kim Ji young born in 1982”], Jiyoung felt that she become nothingness herself after deteriorating by domestic routines and dull duties from her family. She has lost her mind after all. Would have been different to Jiyoung if she has, says, a thoughtful husband and supportive family, like Vera’s? While I am very happy to see Vera had a successful life, I can't stop thinking about many women who lost their chances to blossom their life only because of their surrounding situation. I’m sorry for them.

  6. 4 out of 5

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  15. 5 out of 5

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