Astronomy & Cosmology

Rubin, Vera & Kent W. Ford | Bright Galaxies Dark Matters

  • First edition, first printing of this collection of writings by Vera Rubin (1928-2016), the astronomer who produced the first observational data for the existence of dark matter. Rare in such beautiful condition. The pieces compiled here include “An Unconventional Career”, which is the transcript of a 1992 interview on Rubin’s life and career; the transcript of her 1992 Desert Island Discs interview; her important essay “Women’s Work” on the history of women in astronomy, biographical sketches of female astronomers, and articles on galaxies, stellar evolution, and the technological and social history of astronomy.

    Vera Rubin was the daughter of an engineer who fostered her love of science, particularly astronomy, from an early age. She became the only astronomy graduate at Vasser in 1948 and, after discovering that her first choice of Princeton did not accept female graduate students, she earned her Master’s at Cornell and doctorate at Georgetown. Rubin was particularly interested in the rotation of galaxies, which she had researched under the pioneering astronomer Margaret Burbidge in 1963. At the time, galactic rotation had not properly been measured, but it was expected that the same law of motion that governs the movement of bodies in the solar system would apply to the stars in galaxies. As Newton had shown, the speed of rotation of the stars should drop in proportion to the square root of their distance from the centre. But when Rubin and her collaborator Kent Ford measured star speeds in the Andromeda Galaxy they discovered, to their surprise, that the stars at the edges of the galaxy rotated at the same speed, or slightly faster than, those closer to the centre. This violated the laws of both Newton and Einstein, and implied that the galaxies should have been fraying at the edges as stars were hurled into the void.

    The only explanation for this result was that some additional mass was holding the galaxies together. The concept of dark matter had first been proposed by astronomers Fritz Zwicky and Jan Oort in the 1930s, but was largely ignored. And because no one had predicted its effects on galaxies, Rubin didn’t initially recognise its relevance to their situation. But as she explained in an interview with psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Months were taken up in trying to understand what I was looking at… One day I just decided that I had to understand what this complexity was that I was looking at and I made sketches on a piece of paper and suddenly I understood it all. I have no other way of describing it. It was exquisitely clear. I don’t know why I hadn’t done this two years earlier.” What Rubin realised was that if the outer edges of the galaxy contained a halo of dark matter, the additional mass would hold these quickly rotating stars in place.

    Within a few years, other astronomers had constructed a theoretical framework for our understanding of dark matter, and we now have multiple ways to observe its effects on galaxies. The discovery of this mysterious form of matter has had a profound impact on our understanding of everything from the movement of stars to the very life and death of the universe itself. As astronomer Emily Levasque of the University of Washington at Seattle put it, “The existence of dark matter has utterly revolutionized our concept of the universe and our entire field; the ongoing effort to understand the role of dark matter has basically spawned entire subfields within astrophysics and particle physics at this point”

    Rubin received numerous honours for her work - she was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1993 and became only the second woman after Caroline Herschel to receive the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. Rubin was long considered a front-runner for the Nobel Prize, and many see the Committee’s failure to recognise her as a permanent stain on its credibility.

  • Woodbury, NY: American Institute of Physics, 1997.

    Octavo. Original black boards, titles to spine in silver. With the dust jacket. Colour plate, illustrations within the text. A fine copy in the jacket.