The arrow of time advances and with it many lives come and go, but 2016 seemed to take more than give...especially in its waning days. The news was filled with the passing of so many talented people that hardly a day went by that a famous entertainer wasn’t eulogized by the media.
On Christmas day, Vera Rubin, 88, died. Unfortunately, most of you don’t know who she was. My belief is that our culture often places too much significance on the value of entertainers and pop culture in our lives. Because of this, we sometimes fail to appreciate the people who contribute the most to our society.
Who was Vera Rubin? She was the person who discovered that 90 percent of our universe is made of dark matter. She is the most qualified, rewarded and recognized physicist never to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for her work. Since the prize cannot be awarded posthumously, Rubin’s death on Dec. 25, 2016, means that she will never receive the medal. That tugs at my heartstrings.
So what was the big deal about Vera Rubin’s work? Well, she dealt with gender discrimination to get her degrees at Vassar, Cornell (MS) and Georgetown (Ph.D) Universities in the late 1940s. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Rubin’s research revealed that the stars in spiral galaxies didn’t rotate as predicted by current physics laws and some unseen mass, totally invisible to us, must be influencing the way galaxies of billions of stars behave. Known today as dark matter, its mass outnumbers the traditional stuff like people, planets and things by at least five to one.
Parents does your child display curiosity? If yes, then nourish that hunger and provide your children with as much as you are able. We are all better when our children grow intellectually stronger. In an American Institute of Physics interview with Dr. Rubin in 1988, when asked what motivated her to look into the rotation of the galaxies, she replied candidly. “The only motivation that I can point to is just plain old curiosity.”
Returning this column from the realm of rotating galaxies to Rockwall where it belongs, I’m reminded that a few days after Vera Rubin’s passing I was fortunate to have spent a day at the barn with my daughter. Horses have a way of grounding, humbling, and making us appreciate life in so many ways. Traffic stopped in front of a tutoring center that specializes in math skills. My daughter and I sprang to the same question....we wondered if more boys than girls go to that place and why. Her wisdom and advanced studies in sociology and psychology combined with my thoughts on society’s deafness to the passing of a great scientist like Vera Rubin made for spirited discussion.
In the end, it seems that the glitz and the gala of entertainers seems rather foolish and temporary for it is the hard work, curiosity and dedication of the people like Vera Rubin, who lived a very curious and productive 88 years, that returned riches for our entire civilization.
Vera Rubin’s work did more than reveal the unseen, it helped inspire generations of women to continue in the face of adversity, discrimination and unkind working conditions. The day Vera Rubin died, I sought inspiration from Professor Lisa Randall regarding public science communication. Professor Randall is the Frank B. Baird Jr Professor of Physics at Harvard University and her most recent book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs is very accessible to the public and provides a great overview to topics of interest. I highly recommend this book. For further reading I strongly recommend Professor Randall’s OpEd in the New York Times, Why Vera Rubin Deserved the Nobel, January 4, 2017.
Max Corneau is a NASA/ JPL Solar System Ambassador, astronomer and master of pub- lic astronomy outreach. His website, www.astrodad.com, is devoted to continuously ele- vating “the human condition by increasing our sense of place in the Universe through the use of technology and human interaction.”