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  • richardmitnick 11:15 am on October 4, 2016 Permalink | Reply
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    From Astronomy: Women in STEM – “How Vera Rubin discovered dark matter” 

    Astronomy magazine

    astronomy.com

    October 04, 2016
    Sarah Scoles

    1
    A young Vera Rubin was already observing the stars when she was an undergraduate at Vassar College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in astronomy in 1948. Archives & Special Collections, Vassar College Library

    In the late 1970s, Vera Rubin and Kent Ford of the Carnegie Institution of Washington stared, confused, at the punch-card readouts from their observations of the Andromeda Galaxy.

    Andromeda Galaxy Adam Evans
    Andromeda Galaxy, Adam Evans”

    The vast spiral seemed to be rotating all wrong. The stuff at the edges was moving just as fast as the stuff near the center, apparently violating Newton’s Laws of Motion (which also govern how the planets move around our Sun). While the explanation for that strange behavior didn’t become clear to Rubin until two years later, these printouts represented the first direct evidence of dark matter.

    Scientists now know that dark matter comprises some 84 percent of the universe’s material. Its invisible particles swarm and stream and slam through the whole cosmos. It affects how stars move within galaxies, how galaxies tug on each other, and how all that matter clumped together in the first place. It is to the cosmos like air is to humans: ubiquitous, necessary, unseen but felt. The discovery of this strange substance deserves a Nobel Prize. But, for Rubin, none has come, although she has long been a “people’s choice” and predicted winner.

    In the past few years, scientists have gotten that free trip to Sweden for demonstrating that neutrinos have mass, for inventing blue LEDs, for isolating graphene’s single carbon layer, and for discovering dark energy. All of these experiments and ideas are worthy of praise, and some, like dark energy, even tilted the axis of our understanding of the universe. But the graphene work began in 2004; dark energy observations happened in the late ’90s; scientists weighed neutrinos around the same time; and blue LEDs burst onto the scene a few years before that. Rubin’s work on dark matter, on the other hand, took place in the 1970s. It’s like the committee cannot see her, although nearly all of astrophysics feels her influence.

    Rubin is now 87. She is too infirm for interviews. And because the Nobel can only be awarded to the living, time is running out for her.

    Emily Levesque, an astronomer at the University of Washington in Seattle who has spoken out about Rubin’s notable lack of a Nobel, says, “The existence of dark matter has utterly revolutionized our concept of the universe and our entire field; the ongoing effort to understand the role of dark matter has basically spawned entire subfields within astrophysics and particle physics at this point. Alfred Nobel’s will describes the physics prize as recognizing ‘the most important discovery’ within the field of physics. If dark matter doesn’t fit that description, I don’t know what does.”

    There’s no way to prove why Rubin remains prize-less. But a webpage showing images of past winners looks like a 50th-reunion publication from a boys’ prep school. No woman has received the Nobel Prize in physics since 1963, when Maria Goeppert Mayer shared it with Eugene Wigner and J. Hans Jensen for their work on atomic structure and theory. And the only woman other than Mayer ever to win was Marie Curie. With statistics like that, it’s hard to believe gender has nothing to do with the decision.

    Some, like Chanda Prescod-Weinstein of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have called for no men to accept the prize until Rubin receives it. But given the human ego and nearly million-dollar prize amount, that’s likely to remain an Internet-only call to action.

    No room for women

    Rubin isn’t unfamiliar with discrimination more outright than the Nobel committee’s. Former colleague Neta Bahcall of Princeton University tells a story about a trip Rubin took to Palomar Observatory outside of San Diego early in her career. For many years, the observatory was a researcher’s man cave. Rubin was one of the first women to gain access to its gilt-edged, carved-pillar grandeur. But while she was allowed to be present, the building had no women’s restroom, just urinal-studded water closets.

    “She went to her room, she cut up paper into a skirt image, and she stuck it on the little person image on the door of the bathroom,” says Bahcall. “She said, ‘There you go; now you have a ladies’ room.’ That’s the type of person Vera is.”

    Rubin has continued to champion women’s rights to — and rights within — astronomy. “She frequently would see the list of speakers [at a conference],” says Bahcall, “and if there were very few or no women speakers, she would contact [the organizers] and tell them they have a problem and need to fix it.”

    But, as Rubin told science writer Ann Finkbeiner for Astronomy in 2000, she is “getting fed up. . . . What’s wrong with this story is that nothing’s changing, or it’s changing so slowly.”

    An early start

    Rubin, born in 1928, first found her interest in astronomy when her family moved to Washington, D.C. Windows lined the wall next to her bed. She watched the stars move, distant and unreachable. “What fascinated me was that if I opened my eyes during the night, they had all rotated around the pole,” she told David DeVorkin in 1995 as part of the American Institute of Physics oral history interview series. “And I found that inconceivable. I just was captured.”

    She started watching meteor showers and drew maps of the streaks, which striped the sky for a second and then were gone. She built a telescope and chose astronomical topics for English papers, using every subject as an opportunity to peer deeper into the universe. “How could you possibly live on this Earth and not want to study these things?” she wondered, retelling the story to DeVorkin.

    While her parents supported her, it was a different story at school. When she told her physics teacher, for instance, that she had received a scholarship to Vassar College, he said, “As long as you stay away from science, you should do OK.”

    She didn’t.

    2
    Rubin and Kent for (white hat) check on their equipment at Lowell Observatory in 1965 during one of their first observing runs together. Carnegie Institution, Department of Terrestrial Magnetism

    Rotation of the universe

    After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Vassar, Rubin enrolled in graduate school in astronomy at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Ensconced in Ithaca’s gorges and working with astronomer Martha Stahr Carpenter, Rubin began to hunt around for a master’s thesis idea. Carpenter was obsessed with galaxies and how their innards moved. “Her course in galaxy dynamics really set me off on a direction that I followed almost my entire career,” said Rubin.

    One day, her new husband, Robert Rubin, brought her a journal article by astronomer George Gamow. In it, Gamow wondered, “What if we took the way solar systems rotate and applied it to how galaxies move in the universe?”

    Rubin wondered, “What if, indeed?” and took that wonder a step further. She began to measure how galaxies moved. Did some cluster together in their travel through space — perhaps rotating around a pole, like the planets rotate around the common Sun? Was it random?

    While gathering data, she found a plane that was denser with galaxies than other regions. She didn’t know it at the time, and no one else would discover it for years, but she had identified the “supergalactic plane,” the equator of our home supercluster of galaxies.

    When she presented her thesis, William Shaw, one of her advisers, told her just two things: One, the word data is plural. Two, her work was sloppy. But, he continued, she should consider presenting it at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting. Or, rather, she should consider having it presented for her. Because she was pregnant with her first child — due just a month before the meeting — and not a member of the society, he graciously volunteered to give a talk on her results. “In his name,” she clarified to DeVorkin. “Not in my name. I said to him, ‘Oh, I can go.’ ”

    She called her talk “Rotation of the Universe,” ascribing the ambitious title to “the enthusiasm of youth,” as she recalled. At the AAS meeting, she didn’t know anyone, and she thought of herself as a different category of human. “I put these people in a very special class. They were professional astronomers, and I was not,” she said, showcasing a classic case of impostor syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which people don’t feel they deserve their accomplishments and status and will inevitably be exposed as frauds. “One of the biggest problems in my life [during] those years was really attempting to answer the question to myself, ‘Will I ever really be an astronomer?’ ”

    The “real astronomers” pounced on her result (except, notably, Martin Schwarzschild, who defined how big black holes are). “My paper was followed by a rather acrimonious discussion,” she told DeVorkin. “I didn’t know anyone, so I didn’t know who these people were that were getting up and saying the things they said. As I recall, all the comments were negative.”

    Her paper was never published.

    Back into the field

    For six months after her first child was born, Rubin stayed home. But while she loved having a child, staying at home emptied her. She cried every time The Astrophysical Journal arrived at the house. “I realized that as much as we both adored this child, there was nothing in my background that had led me to expect that [my husband] would go off to work each day doing what he loved to do, and I would stay home with this lovely child,” she said to DeVorkin. “I really found it very, very hard. And it was he who insisted that I go back to school.”

    She was accepted into a Ph.D. program at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and she discovered that galaxies did clump together, like iron filings, and weren’t randomly strewn. The work, though now part of mainstream astronomy, was largely ignored for decades; that lack of reinforcement perhaps contributed to her lingering, false feeling that she wasn’t a real astronomer. As she described it, “My husband heard my question often, ‘Will I ever really be an astronomer?’ First I thought when I’d have a Ph.D., I would. Then even after I had my Ph.D., I wondered if I would.”

    3
    Rubin operates the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Kent Ford’s spectograph is attached so they can measure the speed of matter at different distances from galaxies’ centers. NOAO/AURA/NSF

    Mysteriously flat

    In 1965, after a stint as a professor at Georgetown, Rubin began her work at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington, D.C., where she met astronomer Kent Ford and his spectacular spectrometer, which was more sensitive than any other at the time.

    A spectrometer takes light and splits it up into its constituent wavelengths. Instead of just showing that a fluorescent bulb glows white, for instance, it would show how much of that light is blue and how much yellow, and which specific wavelengths of blue and yellow. Ford’s spectrometer stood out from others at the time because it employed state-of-the-art photomultipliers that let researchers study small regions of galaxies, and not simply the entire objects.

    With this device, Ford and Rubin decided to look at quasars — distant galaxies with dynamic, supermassive black holes at their centers. But this was competitive work: Quasars had just been discovered in 1963, and their identity was in those days a mystery that everyone wanted to solve. Rubin and Ford didn’t have their own telescope and had to request time on the world-class instruments that astronomers who worked directly for the observatories could access all the time. Rubin didn’t like the competition.

    “After about a year or two, it was very, very clear to me that that was not the way I wanted to work,” she told Alan Lightman in another American Institute of Physics oral history interview. “I decided to pick a problem that I could go observing and make headway on, hopefully a problem that people would be interested in, but not so interested [in] that anyone would bother me before I was done.”

    Rubin and Ford chose to focus on the nearby Andromeda Galaxy (M31). It represented a return to Rubin’s interest in galaxy dynamics. “People had inferred what galaxy rotations must be like,” said Rubin, “but no one had really made a detailed study to show that that was so.” Now, because of Ford’s out-of-this-world spectrograph, they could turn the inferences into observations.

    When they pointed the telescope at M31, they expected to see it rotate like the solar system does: Objects closer to the center move faster than ones toward the edge. Mass causes gravity, which determines the speed of rotation. Since most of the stars, dust, and gas — and therefore gravity — is clustered in the middle of galaxies, the stuff on the periphery shouldn’t feel much pull. They concentrated their observations on Hydrogen-II (HII) regions — areas of ionized hydrogen gas where stars have recently formed — at different distances from the galaxy’s center. But no matter how far out they looked, the HII regions seemed to be moving at the same speed. They weren’t slowing down.

    “We kept going farther and farther out and had some disappointment that we never saw anything,” says Ford. “I do remember my puzzling at the end of the first couple of nights that the spectra were all so straight,” said Rubin, referring to the unchanging speed of the various HII regions.

    They didn’t know what, if anything, it meant yet.

    The project took years and involved treks westward to telescopes. Ford recalls flying to Flagstaff, Arizona, dragging the spectrograph from the closet, working for a few nights at Lowell, and then throwing the instrument into a Suburban so they could drive it to Kitt Peak. “We both thought we were better at guiding the telescope,” he says. They raced each other to be first to the eyepiece.

    The data came out on punch cards, which Rubin spent hours analyzing in a cubbyhole beneath a set of stairs. They all showed the same thing.

    Rubin and Ford moved on from M31 to test other galaxies and their rotation curves. Like an obsessive artist, each painted the same picture. Although the result contradicted theory, and although they didn’t understand what it meant, no one doubted their data. “All you had to do was show them a picture of the spectrum,” Rubin told Lightman. “It just piled up too fast. Soon there were 20, then 40, then 60 rotation curves, and they were all flat.”

    A dark answer

    Dark matter existed as a concept, first proposed by astronomers like Jan Oort in 1932 and Fritz Zwicky in 1933, who also noticed discrepancies in how much mass astronomers could see and how much physics implied should be present. But few paid their work any attention, writing their research off as little more than cosmological oddities. And no one had bagged such solid evidence of it before. And because no one had predicted what dark matter’s existence might mean for galaxy dynamics, Rubin and Ford initially didn’t recognize the meaning of their flat rotation curves.

    “Months were taken up in trying to understand what I was looking at,” Rubin told journalist Maria Popova. “One day I just decided that I had to understand what this complexity was that I was looking at, and I made sketches on a piece of paper, and suddenly I understood it all.”

    If a halo of dark matter graced each galaxy, she realized, the mass would be spread throughout the galaxy, rather than concentrating in the center. The gravitational force — and the orbital speed — would be similar throughout.

    Rubin and Ford had discovered the unseeable stuff that influences not only how galaxies move, but how the universe came to be and what it will become. “My entire education highlighted how fundamental dark matter is to our current understanding of astrophysics,” says Levesque, “and it’s hard for me to imagine the field or the universe without it.”

    Within a few years of the M31 observations, physicists like Jeremiah Ostriker and James Peebles provided the theoretical framework to support what Rubin and Ford had already shown, and dark matter settled firmly into its celebrated place in the universe.

    In more recent years, the Planck satellite measured the dark matter content of the universe by looking at the cosmic microwave background, the radiation left over from the Big Bang. The clumps of matter in this baby picture of the universe evolved into the galaxy superclusters we see today, and it was dark matter that clumped first and drew the regular matter together.

    Data from galaxy clusters now also confirms dark matter and helps scientists measure how much of it exists within a given group — a modern echo of Zwicky’s almost forgotten work. When light from more distant sources passes near a cluster, the gravity — from the cluster’s huge mass — bends the light like a lens.

    The amount of bending can reveal the amount of dark matter.

    No matter which way or where scientists measure Rubin’s discovery, it’s huge.

    And while no one knows what all the dark matter is, scientists have discovered that some small fraction of it is made of neutrinos — tiny, fast-moving particles that don’t really interact with normal matter. Measurements from the cosmic microwave background, like those being taken by experiments called POLARBEAR in Chile and BICEP2 and BICEP3 in Antarctica, will help pin down how many neutrinos are streaming through the universe and how much of the dark matter they make up.

    Some setups, like the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy and the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory in South Dakota, are trying to detect dark matter particles directly, when they crash into atoms in cryogenically cooled tanks filled with liquefied noble gases. So far, they haven’t managed to capture a dark matter particle in action. But researchers are taking dark matter — whatever it is — into account when they think about how the universe evolves.

    The Nobel committee may overlook Rubin, passing by her as if they can’t see what all of astrophysics feels. But that won’t hurt her legacy, says Levesque: It will hurt the legacy of the Nobel itself. “It would then permanently lack any recognition of such groundbreaking work,” Levesque says.

    Rubin herself has never spoken about how she deserves a Nobel Prize. She simply continued her scientific work until recently, all the while influencing the origins, evolutions, and fates of other scientists. “If they didn’t get a job or they didn’t get a paper published, she would cheer people up,” says Bahcall. “She kept telling her story about how there are ups and downs and you stick with it and keep doing what you love doing.”

    Rubin, herself, loves trying to understand the universe, and in doing so, she has changed everyone’s understanding of it. That carries more weight than some medal from Sweden. But let Sweden recognize that for what it is: worthy of a prize.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 8:21 am on April 29, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Vera Rubin,   

    From brainpickings: “Pioneering Astronomer Vera Rubin on Women in Science, Dark Matter, and Our Never-Ending Quest to Know the Universe” 

    brainpickings bloc

    brainpickings

    4.29.16
    Maria Popova

    Pioneering Astronomer Vera Rubin on Women in Science, Dark Matter, and Our Never-Ending Quest to Know the Universe

    “We’re still groping for the truth… Science consists of continually making better and better what has been usable in the past.”

    When trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell was hired to teach at the newly established Vassar College in 1865, she was the only woman on the faculty and according to the original college handbook of rules, female students were not allowed to go outside after dark. Although Mitchell fought to upend this absurd obstruction to the study of astronomy and became a tireless champion of young women in the field, lamentably little changed in the century that followed.

    Exactly one hundred years later, another remarkable observer of the cosmos ushered in a new era both for astronomy itself and for women’s role in it. In 1965, astronomer Vera Rubin (b. July 23, 1928) became the first woman permitted to observe at the Palomar Observatory, home to the most powerful telescopes at the time. So began her pioneering work on galaxy rotation, which precipitated Rubin’s confirmation of the existence of dark matter — one of the most significant milestones in our understanding of the universe. (That Rubin hasn’t yet received a Nobel Prize is a testament to the systemic flaws in how these accolades are meted out.)

    1
    Vera Rubin as an undergraduate at Vassar, 1940s. No image credit

    Nowhere do Rubin’s extraordinary mind and spirit come more alive than in Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists (public library) — a magnificent 1990 collection of interviews exploring “the ways in which personal, philosophical, and social factors enter the scientific process” by Alan Lightman and Roberta Brawer, featuring luminaries like Stephen Hawking, Alan Guth, and Martin Rees.

    Like Jane Goodall, who turned her childhood dream into reality, Rubin’s cosmic career began at the very beginning:

    “My childhood bedroom … had a bed which was under windows that faced north. At about age 10, while lying in bed, I started watching the stars just move through the night. By about age 12, I would prefer to stay up and watch the stars than go to sleep. I started learning, going to the library and reading… There was just nothing as interesting in my life as watching the stars every night. I found it a remarkable thing. You could tell time by the stars. I could see meteors.[…]

    When there were meteor showers and things like that, I would not put the light on. Throughout the night I would memorize where each one went so that in the morning I could make a map of their trails.”

    By high school, Rubin knew that she wanted to be an astronomer. But she had never met a single astronomer in real life — she only knew of Maria Mitchell from a children’s book. In a testament to the power of picture-books about cultural icons to offer vitalizing role models and expand children’s scope of possibility, Rubin recounts:

    “I knew that [Maria Mitchell] had taught at Vassar. So I knew there was a school where women could study astronomy… It never occurred to me that I couldn’t be an astronomer.”

    2
    Maria Mitchell. No image credit.

    She followed in Mitchell’s footsteps and went to Vassar, got married to a fellow scientist, and went on to a graduate program at Cornell along with her new husband. Rubin relays a jarring sign of the times:

    “Actually, I had been accepted by Harvard. I have a letter somewhere from [Harvard Observatory director] Donald Menzel saying, “Damn you women,” handwritten across the bottom. This was a response to a letter I wrote saying that I wished to withdraw because I was getting married and going to Cornell. He scribbled across this very formal letter, thanking me for letting him know, something like “Damn you women. Every time I get a good one ready, she goes off and gets married.”

    But marriage didn’t obstruct Rubin’s scientific pursuits, nor did Cornell’s nearly nonexistent astronomy department, which consisted of one man (a former wartime navigator who actively discouraged Rubin from pursuing astronomy) and one woman (who Rubin surmises was the only female faculty member at Cornell at the time). Still, the university offered an unparalleled physics program of which Rubin took advantage. Richard Feynman was on her thesis committee. The actual presentation of her master’s thesis is a poignant parable of both Rubin’s remarkable character and the Sisyphean climb required of women in just about every professional field at the time.

    In December of 1950, 22-year-old Rubin was to present her thesis at the American Astronomical Society. Having just given birth to her first child and nursing the newborn, she made her way through snowy upstate New York, walked into the meeting, gave her 10-minute presentation on galaxy rotation, and left.

    4
    Spiral Galaxy M101 (Image credit: NASA / Hubble Space Telescope)

    The concept of large-scale motion of the universe was a revolutionary one, twenty years ahead of its time, and it garnered the skepticism with which all such visionary ideas are at first received. Rubin’s resulting paper was rejected by the two major astronomy journals of the era. Even the few scientists intrigued by her work were subject to the limiting conventions of the time — the great theoretical physicist and cosmologist George Gamow, who would later become her doctoral advisor, contacted Rubin to inquire about her galaxy rotation work but refused to let her attend his lecture at Georgetown’s Applied Physics Lab “because wives were not allowed” there.

    But Rubin remained driven by the same irrepressible curiosity with which she had peered into the night sky from her childhood bedroom, so she went on with her work, animated by that most powerful of motives — the joy of discovery:

    “Although several times in my career I have found myself in relatively controversial positions, I really don’t enjoy it. For me, doing astronomy is incredibly great fun. It’s just a joy to get up every morning and come to work. In a sense, the heated controversy really spoiled the fun. I mean people were really very harsh. Maybe one learns to take this. I’m not sure you do.

    […]

    I decided to pick a problem that I could go observing and make headway on — hopefully, a problem that people would be interested in, but not so interested in that anyone would bother me before I was done.”

    5
    Vera Rubin in 1974. No image credit.

    “That problem was dark matter, the existence of which Rubin set out to prove through observation. At the time, it was still a theoretical construct, regarded as rather inconvenient in the context of existing theories:

    Many people initially wished that you didn’t need dark matter. It was not a concept that people embraced enthusiastically. But I think that the observations were undeniable enough so that most people just unenthusiastically adopted it.”

    Today, dark matter has become not only accepted but central to our understanding of the universe and even of our own existence. Its story is a testament to the most perennial truth of science and human knowledge, as well as to the fact that a great scientist is always more interested in understanding than in being right, both of which Rubin captures beautifully:

    “We’re still groping for the truth. So I don’t really worry too much about details that don’t fit in, because I put them in the domain of things we still have to learn about. I really see no reason why we should have been lucky enough to live at the point where the universe was understood in its totality… As telescopes get bigger, and astronomers get cleverer, I think all kinds of things are going to be discovered that are going to require alterations in our theories… Science consists of continually making better and better what has been usable in the past.”

    I’m reminded of Marie Curie, hunched over in her lab long before the first of her two Nobel Prizes, asserting in a letter to her brother that “one never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.” Amid our age of productivity, this might sound like a dispiriting sentiment — but to the scientist ablaze with curiosity, it is a source of invigoration. Indeed, one of the most wonderful aspects of science is how inherently unproductive it is — each new discovery illuminates a new frontier of curiosity, each new known unravels a myriad new unknowns, and the measure of good science is the willingness to reach for that unknown, even if it means recalibrating our present knowns.

    Rubin captures this wonderfully:

    “I hope 500 years from now astronomers still aren’t talking about the same big bang model. I think they won’t have done their work if they are… I still believe there may be many really fundamental things about the universe that we don’t know. I think our ignorance is greater than our knowledge. I wouldn’t put us at the 50-50 point of knowledge about the universe.”

    5
    Cat’s Eye Nebula (Image credit: NASA / Hubble Space Telescope)

    Rubin considers the question of beauty and how it frames our direction of interest. In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness and Frida Kahlo on how affection amplifies beauty, Rubin reflects:

    “I sometimes ask myself whether I would be studying galaxies if they were ugly. I really do, and I’m not sure. I see ugly bugs. My garden is full of slugs. I sometimes think, well, maybe if I started studying them, they wouldn’t appear to be so ugly… I put that at the other extreme. I think it may not be irrelevant that galaxies are really very attractive.”

    She revisits the question of gender and considers what prevented many other women in her generation, and even in her daughter’s generation, from going into science — the same concern with which a little girl once turned to Albert Einstein. Rubin reflects:

    “It’s the way we raise little girls. It happens very early. I think also it’s what little girls see in the world around them. It’s an incredible cultural thing. I have two granddaughters. One of them — her mother and father are both professionals, her aunt and uncle are professionals — said her toy rabbit was sick. Her uncle said, “Well, you be the doctor and I’ll be the nurse, and we’ll fix it,” and she said, “Boys can’t be girls.” And her mother realized that she never had seen a doctor who was a woman. By the age of 2, she knew that men were doctors and women were nurses. So you may talk about role models and your thinking about colleges, but this happens at the age of 2. It’s a very complicated situation.”

    Rubin — who has three sons and one daughter, all with doctorates in science — argues that the only viable solution to this systemic problem lies in raising little girls with enough confidence to pursue their interests and withstand the limiting cultural messages about what they can and cannot be. She recounts her own conquest of the odds:

    “I went to a D.C. public high school. I was very, very interested in astronomy, and I just could keep myself going by telling myself that I was just different than other people, that they just had different interests than I did. I had a physics teacher who was a real macho guy. Everybody loved him — all the males. He did experiments; he set up labs. Everybody was very enthusiastic. I really don’t think he knew how to relate to a young girl in his class… He never knew that I was interested in astronomy, he never knew that I was interested in science. The day I learned I got my scholarship to Vassar, I was really excited because I couldn’t go to college without a scholarship. I met him in the hall, and probably said the first thing I had ever said to him outside of the class, and I told him I got the scholarship to Vassar, and he said to me, “As long as you stay away from science, you should do okay.” It takes an enormous self-esteem to listen to things like that and not be demolished. So rather than teaching little girls physics, you have to teach them that they can learn anything they want to.”

    How pause-giving to consider that science progresses much more rapidly than the cultural norms of science do. In the generation between Rubin and her daughter, who is also an astronomer, we have discovered cosmic microwave background radiation, decoded the molecular structure of DNA, and invented lasers, and yet the gender ration of science hasn’t improved nearly enough, nor has the subtle cultural messaging. What Rubin recounts a quarter century ago is still the basic reality in many rooms and in many parts of the world:

    “My daughter is an astronomer. She got her Ph.D. in cosmic ray physics and went off to a meeting in Japan, and she came back and told me she was the only woman there. I really couldn’t tell that story for a long time without weeping, because certainly in one generation, between her generation and mine, not an awful lot has changed. Some things are better, but not enough things.”

    What a poignant slogan for all human rights movements, from racial justice to marriage equality: “Some things are better, but not enough things.” And yet, like Curie, we can see this not as a lamentation but as a frontier of hope — because “what remains to be done” can be done, and it falls on us to do it.

    Complement the altogether wonderful Origins, which Carl Sagan lauded as a skillful “exposition of the styles of scientific thinking,” with Vera Rubin on obsessiveness and uncertainty and her terrific 1996 Berkeley commencement address.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

     
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