Top banner


Of Mass Found Missing

Donald Osterbrock

Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters. Vera Rubin. 236 pp. AIP Press, 1997. $29.95.

This collection of papers, articles, essays and talks takes the reader to the frontier of current astronomical research for an insider's view of how Vera Rubin and her fellow observational astronomers work. It also amounts to a brief autobiography that offers a helpful dose of advice and encouragement for aspiring young women scientists.

The author, a staff scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, is best known for proving to hard-bitten observational astronomers that there must be a lot of dark matter in the Milky Way and other galaxies and star systems like it. By measuring these galaxies' rotational velocities, Rubin and her collaborators conclusively demonstrated that there is more mass than can be attributed to the luminous matter alone. What this unseen mass is remains one of the hottest research problems in astronomy, and Rubin's work in the field has won her many honors. They include election to the National Academy of Sciences and, in 1996, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, perhaps the astronomy world's top prize. (She was the second woman to get it, the first since Caroline Herschel, in 1828.)

Her graduate education was nontraditional. She married, had children and moved when her husband changed jobs. She had highly creative research ideas but was hampered for lack of observational data. Despite great obstacles, she made herself an observer. She proposed worthwhile programs that won her time on big telescopes, where she generated her own data. She describes this well and modestly, with affectionate portraits of teacher-mentors Matid Makemson at Vassar and Martha Stahr Carpenter at Cornell and of thesis adviser George Gamow at George Washington University (although she was officially enrolled at Georgetown). Great scientist though he was, Gamow was not well connected in the astronomical establishment and was no help in finding Rubin a job. She did it on her own.

This book is well written, the scientific articles clear to readers in any discipline. They show how our knowledge of the universe—particularly the Andromeda galaxy, her favorite—has grown and developed over the years. The results are not final; we always build on the works of the past as we confirm, modify, improve or topple them. Several of her articles deal with women astronomers and the problems they and she have faced because men did not treat them as equals. (The men did not let go easily. As late as the 1960s, Rubin was the first woman to be assigned observing time at Palomar Observatory; Margaret Burbidge had used the Hale 200-inch telescope earlier, but her time had been officially assigned to her husband.) In each piece, she exhibits a strong sense of history and a knowledge of astronomy beyond her field. She is very trusting and perhaps a little naive in some of her advice, but it is all well meant. In her descriptions of her own work, she is always realistic. And she shows that she listens to others. For instance, she very quickly grasped the potential of the new image tubes in the 1960s, learned to use them effectively and exploited them to measure the internal velocities in many nearby galaxies, thus confirming the existence of dark matter.

I recommend this book very highly to anyone who is interested in the universe and in the astronomers who try to understand it quantitatively. Young women scientists and science students, no matter their field, will find it especially rewarding.—Donald E. Osterbrock, Lick Observatory, University of California, Santa Cruz

comments powered by Disqus


Bottom Banner