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Pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin dies at 88

December 27, 2016

Vera Rubin, an astrophysicist who made groundbreaking contributions to the study of dark matter, has died of natural causes at the age of 88.

In the 1970s, while working at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, Rubin and astronomer Kent Ford discovered that stars at the outside of the galaxy move as fast as ones in the middle—a phenomenon that seemed to contradict Newtonian gravitational theory. Rubin and her colleagues determined that invisible masses known as “dark matter” were responsible for this movement, according to a biography on the Carnegie website. Scientists had been theorizing about dark matter since the 1930s, but Rubin’s work confirmed its existence.

Rubin was born in 1928. According to the Guardian, her father encouraged her interest in astronomy, helping her build a telescope and taking her to meetings of amateur astronomers.

After graduating from Vassar College in 1948, Rubin hoped to attend Princeton’s astronomy graduate program, but was told that women were not permitted to enroll. She attended Cornell instead, and went on to earn a doctorate from Georgetown University.

Rubin was the second woman to ever be elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1993. She received many other accolades throughout her career—including an honorary degree from Princeton University in 2005, some sixty years after she had been barred from the institution because of her gender.

A staunch feminist, Rubin advocated for greater inclusion of women in scientific fields. CNN reports that she once refused to advertise for a new astronomy program at the University of Chicago because the tract had no women on its faculty. In 2002, she wrote that she works with “three basic assumptions”:

1) There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman.

2) Worldwide, half of all brains are in women.

3) We all need permission to do science, but, for reasons that are deeply ingrained in history, this permission is more often given to men than to women.”

Read more at CNN and the Guardian.