Vera Rubin Gets a Telescope of Her Own


Vera Rubin, a young astronomer at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, was on the run in the 1970s when she overturned the universe.

Seeking refuge from the controversies and ego-bashing of cosmology, she decided to immerse herself in the pearly swirlings of spiral galaxies, only to find that there was more to them than she and almost everybody else had thought.

For millenniums, humans had presumed that when we gaze out at the universe, what we see is a fair representation of reality. Dr. Rubin, with her colleague Kent Ford, discovered that was not true. The universe — all those galaxies and the vast spaces between — was awash with dark matter, an invisible something with sufficient gravity to mold the large scale structures of the universe.

Esteemed astronomers dismissed her findings at first. But half a century later, the still futile quest to identify this “dark matter” is a burning question for both particle physics and astronomy. It’s a pursuit that stretches from underground particle colliders to orbiting telescopes, with all manner of ground-based observatories in between.

And finally there is the new Annie Maunder Astrographic Telescope at the venerable Royal Greenwich Observatory, just outside London. It is named after Annie Maunder, who with her husband Walter made pioneering observations of the sun and solar cycle of sunspots in the late 1800s.

Heros of science, all of them.

In a field known for grandiloquent statements and frightening intellectual ambitions, Dr. Rubin was known for simple statements about how stupid we are. In an interview in 2000 posted on the American Museum of Natural History website, Dr. Rubin said:

In a spiral galaxy, the ratio of dark-to-light matter is about a factor of 10. That’s probably a good number for the ratio of our ignorance to knowledge. We’re out of kindergarten, but only in about third grade.

Once upon a time cosmologists thought there might be enough dark matter in the universe for its gravity to stop the expansion of the cosmos and pull everything back together in a Big Crunch. Then astronomers discovered an even more exotic feature of the universe, now called dark energy, which is pushing the galaxies apart and speeding up the cosmic expansion.

These discoveries have transformed cosmology still further, into a kind of Marvel Comics super-struggle between invisible, titanic forces. One, dark matter, pulls everything together toward its final doom; the other, dark energy, pushes everything apart toward the ultimate dispersal, some times termed the Big Rip. The rest of us, the terrified populace looking up at this cosmic war, are bystanders, made of atoms, which are definitely a minority population of the universe. Which force will ultimately prevail? Which side should we root for?

Until recently the money was on dark energy and eventual dissolution of the cosmos. But lately cracks have appeared in the data, suggesting that additional forces may be at work beneath the surface of our present knowledge.

Now she has an observatory of her own. Among its main missions, the Rubin Observatory will investigate the cosmic push-pull between dark matter and dark energy, peeling back layers of the sky and of the past. Its data will chart how fast clusters of galaxies (drawn together by dark matter gravity) have grown over cosmic time, and how fast the spaces between these clusters (created by the push of dark energy) have grown as the universe has expanded.

“The Rubin Observatory is expected to significantly advance what we know about dark matter and dark energy,” Dr. Córdova said. “So the Rubin name will have yet another way to inspire women and men eager to investigate.” Dr. Córdova went on to praise Congress, which has steadfastly defended the foundation’s budget against White House cuts over the last few years.

Natalie Batalha, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was one of the leaders of NASA’s Kepler planet-hunting space mission, said, “It’s heartening and highly appropriate to see Vera Rubin honored in this way.”



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