The world lost one of its great scientific minds recently with the passing of Dr. Vera Rubin, a retired astronomer, at the age of 88. Rubin was born in 1928 in Philadelphia and earned a BA in astronomy from Vassar College in 1948 before earning a master's degree from Cornell University in 1951 and a doctorate from Georgetown University in 1954. Her doctoral dissertation was one of the first scientific papers to suggest that galaxies tended to clump together into large clusters, an idea confirmed and expanded upon by the 1970s. She also pioneered the concept of "dark matter," a mysterious substance which many astronomers and physicists now believe make up the bulk of the mass of the universe and has received a great deal of attention from scientists in recent years. Dr. Rubin received many awards for her distinguished work, including the National Medal of Science in 1993 and the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1996.
The facts on Dr. Rubin's incredible career and dark matter:
1. As early as 1915, astronomers suspected that some type of matter that was not detectable was affecting gravitational patterns in the universe, and debates on its nature and very existence continued into the 1930s.
2. Dark matter was sometimes called "missing matter," but acquired the new name after scientists confirmed that the materials did exist but were difficult to detect because they did not emit any light or radiation.
3. Rubin's observations of the rotation of spiral galaxies in the early 1970s suggested that gravity was not the sole force holding galaxies together and that the existence of some invisible mass had to be responsible or otherwise the galaxies would fly apart.
4. Rubin's observations that galaxies gathered into clusters of other galaxies across millions of light years also fed the idea that some invisible mass was responsible for it.
5. Scientists are not certain what comprises dark matter, but they know it exists from its gravitational effects throughout the universe. Some of it may be thick, dark gases and dense materials that do not emit or reflect light or it may be large amounts of strange subatomic particles.
6. Scientists believe that dark matter could make up 85 percent of the mass of the universe.
7. Rubin became an astronomer in a time when few women were accepted in scientific careers or in graduate programs, but in the 1960s, she became the first woman authorized to use the telescopes at the Mount Palomar Observatory in California and one of the few women professors at Georgetown University at the time.
8. Vera Rubin co-discovered the Rubin-Ford Effect with William Kent Ford and Norbert Thonnard at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, DC, in 1976, in reference to a sample of a cluster of galaxies moving toward a specific point.
9. Rubin was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and wrote such books as "Large-Scale Motions in the Universe" (1988) and "Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters" (1997).
-- Dr. Ken Bridges is a writer and professor living with his wife and six children in Arkansas. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Science Zone is distributed by More Content Now, a division of Gatehouse Media.