The Life of Astronomer Vera Rubin

Bright Galaxies, Dark Matter,
and Beyond

How Vera Rubin convinced the scientific community that dark matter might exist, persevering despite early dismissals of her work.

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What Readers Say About the Book

A mesmerizing and worthy complement to Rubin's own Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters, Yeager's tender portrait illuminates the scientific soul of one of history's most brilliant navigators of the heavens.

Brian Keating
Chancellor's Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of California, San Diego; author of Losing the Nobel Prize

In this meticulously researched and beautifully written biography, Ashley Yeager elucidates the determination with which Vera Rubin swung at a cosmological piñata until its treasures burst forth. She also deftly explicates the importance of Rubin's pioneering work.

Linda Schweizer
author of Cosmic Odyssey

Yeager explains the science of the unseen mass that holds galaxies together with sprightly, accessible language and shows Vera Rubin to be a luminary and binding force of the global community of dark-matter astrophysicists.

Emily Lakdawalla
space journalist; author of The Design and Engineering of Curiosity

About the Author

I am a writer, editor and multimedia producer, focusing on science and travel. Currently, I am the associate news editor at Science News and have worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT. My first book, Bright Galaxies, Dark Matter and Beyond, on the life of astronomer Vera Rubin, will be published by MIT Press in August.

How Vera Rubin convinced the scientific community that dark matter might exist, persevering despite early dismissals of her work.

We now know that the universe is mostly dark, made up of particles and forces that are undetectable even by our most powerful telescopes. The discovery of the possible existence of dark matter and dark energy signaled a Copernican-like revolution in astronomy: not only are we not the center of the universe, neither is the stuff of which we're made. Astronomer Vera Rubin (1928–2016) played a pivotal role in this discovery. By showing that some astronomical objects seem to defy gravity's grip, Rubin helped convince the scientific community of the possibility of dark matter. In Bright Galaxies, Dark Matter, and Beyond, I tell the story of Rubin's life and work, recounting her persistence despite early dismissals of her work and widespread sexism in science.

I describe Rubin's childhood fascination with stars, her education at Vassar and Cornell, and her marriage to a fellow scientist. At first, Rubin wasn't taken seriously; she was a rarity, a woman in science, and her findings seemed almost incredible. Some observatories in midcentury America restricted women from using their large telescopes; Rubin was unable to collect her own data until a decade after she had earned her Ph.D. Still, she continued her groundbreaking work, driving a scientific revolution. She received the National Medal of Science in 1993, but never the Nobel Prize—perhaps overlooked because of her gender. She's since been memorialized with a ridge on Mars, an asteroid, a galaxy, and most recently, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory—the first national observatory named after a woman.

Why I wrote this book

When I came across Vera Rubin’s work while interning at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. in 2007, I had never heard of her and I had never heard of dark matter, that invisible stuff that binds the cosmos. Reading a description of both in the Explore the Universe exhibit at the museum, my mind buzzed. Who was Vera Rubin? Why hadn’t I heard more about her? Did we really not know what most of the universe was made of? I peppered my supervisor, David DeVorkin, with these questions and others. He pointed me to Rubin’s collection of essays, Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters. A day later he asked: “Would like you to interview Vera?”

I jumped at the chance. And during that meeting in the summer of 2007, I saw something in Vera that I wanted to emulate in the way I interacted with people, a kindness, a patience, a desire to help, a desire to listen. Even though I was a stranger, an intern, Vera listened to me. She asked me questions about my aspirations. She encouraged me. She didn’t have to do that. She chose to. Her welcoming demeanor inspired me to ask if I could accompany her to the telescope. (Even in her late 70s, she was still observing). We met on a cold night in November at Kitt Peak National Observatory. She again patiently answered my questions and let me watch her work. She gave me a small window into how her mind worked. She wanted to know what was at the edges of galaxies, was there dark matter there? She wanted to comprehend how the cosmos was constructed. Her curiosity was palpable. Yet, in the short time I spent with her, she didn’t just teach me about dark matter, she taught me how to live life. That’s why I wrote Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters and Beyond, to share with others, whether they knew her or heard of her or not, the set of principles that she lived by that made her an exceptional human being.