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The Lure of the Stars

Vera Rubin: The Bright Light on Dark Matter

I am conceptualising the content for my new Astronomy Club project. It's fun and demands asking many right questions. I don't have answers, but I find meaningful inspirations among my Tribe of STEM Mentors: Vera Rubin, a STEMinist of many firsts. She is the first woman to have a major observatory named after her - the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope project, being built in Chile, has been renamed The Vera C. Rubin Observatory. It is a huge telescope and will break new ground, as Vera Rubin did in her lifetime.

2021 brought two Vera Rubin reading delights, both beyond science-literate enticing. For me, she was a trailblazer in two ways: detecting the presence of dark matter through the way galaxies rotate; and fiercely arguing for the recognition and inclusion of Women in astronomy.

Dark matter, although invisible, is as it turns out a major component of the universe. We were unaware of its existence until we were forced by Vera, and then also some radio astronomers, to accept that something invisible was affecting the way galaxies rotate, especially in their outer regions. The implications were so dramatic that she had trouble, initially, in getting her observational data accepted. The existence of dark matter was forced upon her (and all of us) by her careful observations of the motion of stars in carefully selected galaxies. Her observational work on the rotation of galaxies has been held in high esteem, and her data is still regarded as outstanding.

The strongest trait of Vera will be her kindness, and her genuine interest in what one was doing professionally. The next trait is her tenacity. She did not have it easy, largely because she was a woman and a wife and a mother. She was forever juggling commitments while clinging to her chosen profession, observational astronomy. And the third trait is her lifelong advocacy for advancing the position of women in science.

Given that she was of the generation that she was, and that she had fur children, it is remarkable that she had a career at all. Her desire to stay intellectually active while rearing children resonates.

Rubin's curiosity about the universe was what began her ow lifelong passion. As an inquisitive teenager, she was seduced by what she found in the night sky and was soon consumed with the idea of devoting herself entirely to astronomy. She became determined to follow her dream however difficult or improbable her journey might appear. Her progression from childhood fascination with the start to a stellar career makes a compelling story. I'll begin my own astronomy adventure with this story and her words:

“My achievements in science came about because I knew what I wanted to do, and I found professional colleagues among helpful, gentle astronomers. I was never discouraged by others who were sometimes discouraging. Instead, I insisted on working on problems outside the main stream of astronomy so that I could work at my own pace and not be pressured by bandwagons. I do not offer this as an example for you, but only to show that there can be diverse approaches to science. There must be. I hope some of you will be able to devise your own paths through the complex sociology of science. Science is competitive, aggressive, demanding. It is also imaginative, inspiring, uplifting. You can do it, too.”

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