The world lost a lot of beloved people in 2016. Just on Christmas Day, music fans were left devastated after British singer George Michael died at his home in England. He was 53 years old.
But not many people know that on the same day, Dec. 25, the world lost a legend — trailblazing American astronomer Vera Rubin.
Rubin was a pioneer astrophysicist. Her groundbreaking work helped find the first and most compelling evidence of dark matter.
She graduated as the only astronomy major from the prestigious Vassar College in 1948. Later, she wanted to apply at Princeton University but learned that women were not allowed in the university's astronomy program. Eventually, she completed a master's degree in physics at Cornell and a doctorate at Georgetown.
In 1965, she became the first woman to officially access the instruments in Palomar Observatory. Soon, Rubin learned the Observatory didn’t have women’s restrooms.
“She went to her room, she cut up paper into a skirt image, and she stuck it on the little person image on the door of the bathroom. She said, ‘There you go; now you have a ladies’ room,’” astrophysicist Neta Bahcall told Astronomy magazine of Rubin’s disposition.
Rubin went on to become the second female astronomer to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Then in 1993, she received the National Medal of Science from then President Bill Clinton.
Despite Rubin’s landmark achievements and groundbreaking work and her status as a role model for astronomers, especially female astronomers, she was never awarded a Nobel Prize in physics. She was one of the many women whose accomplishments were overlooked in the male-dominated field of science.
It’s appalling considering it’s been more than 50 years since a woman was awarded the prestigious honor in that field.
However, Rubin never seemed much bothered about it.
"Fame is fleeting," Rubin told Discover magazine in a 1990 interview. "My numbers mean more to me than my name. If astronomers are still using my data years from now, that's my greatest compliment."
She died of natural causes at 88 in Princeton, New Jersey.
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