Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Particle Physics, Climate Change, and Dinner With Vera Rubin, Part III: Dinner With Vera Rubin

 Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.

Read article full text on the SPS website, and see a photo of Dr. Rubin and the author.

One of the benefits of being an undergraduate at this meeting was the opportunity to interact with renowned astronomer Dr. Vera Rubin.  She gave a presentation on her work to the undergraduates attending the meeting, and played on my team in Physics Jeopardy (we lost).  At 82 years of age, Dr. Rubin's presentation on her work studying the rotation of galaxies was both interesting and anecdotal:  with a colleague, it was her observation that the stars in other galaxies complete their rotation much faster than predicted by Newton's law of gravitation. It was this observation that that led to the postulation of dark matter!

Several of the students, myself included, were invited to a special dinner on the town with Dr. Rubin as our guest of honor.  We piled into a circular table at a nice Italian restaurant.  I had the privilege of sitting next to Dr. Rubin for the first half of the meal, and she was very eager to hear our stories and share her own.  She spoke candidly about both her joys and struggles in astronomy:  from the advisor who told her she would not be allowed to present her research at a conference, but that he could present it for her in his name; to the lone scientist at that conference who, instead of making a big deal about the disaster of her presence, asked enlightening questions and offered to help her publish her work in her own name.  She said she knew she wanted to be an astronomer from the time she was a little girl and could stare at the stars from the window of her bedroom—back when she believed that everything in the world could be learned from books.  Discovering that everything could not be learned from books only increased her desire to learn more, and through hard work and undaunted determination, with the help of a supportive husband and family, she succeeded at receiving her PhD, making important contribution to our knowledge of galaxies, and raising four children.

Perhaps inspired by the Pope decor, Dr. Rubin told another story as the evening came to a close.  She told us about a time when she was able to meet the Pope, as an astronomer selected to be a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.  (As a member of that organization, Dr. Rubin shares an honor with such notable scientists as Steven Hawking, Werner Heisenberg and Paul Dirac.)  Apparently, members receive elaborate jewelry as indication of their membership, which Dr. Rubin had not thought to wear on her evening in the Vatican.  She was expecting, along with the other members of the Academy present, to have an opportunity to meet with the Pope, an opportunity that was extended to members alone and not to their families.  Because she had not brought her jewelry identifying her as a member, and because she was one of the few female members of the Academy of Sciences, she was stopped by three separate Cardinals during the course of her ascent, and told that only members would be allowed to see the Pope.  By the time it was her turn to speak to the Pope and shake his hand, she laughed to recall that she was very angry.

"I told him that I was one of five female members of the Pontifical Academy," said Dr. Rubin, "and that was all I said." 

In response, the Pope looked thoughtful, said, "Oh?" and paused.  "Is that all?" he asked, to which she replied, stonily, "Yes."

"Well, there will be more," replied the Pope, and that concluded the interview.

Over the course of the evening, Dr. Rubin was inducted into Sigma Pi Sigma, joining many of the students present who were also members of the SPS honor society.  When she accepted her certificate and pin, she told us how envious she was of all of us, because we would go on to learn and discover the things she did not yet know.

And that—whether you got into science because you can see the stars from your bedroom window, or because, like me, your parents watched at lot of Star Trek—sums up both the privilege and the bane of being a scientist.  We do, especially at conferences like these, get to experience something of the breadth of what human beings have learned about our world and our universe, which grows steadily year by year, and encompasses more fascinating things than one lifetime alone could spend in awe over discovering.  And yet the more we discover, the more we realize what remains that we don't yet know, what we won't be able to know until more scientists and fresh insight come along to uncover it.  I wonder, and I certainly hope, that the mysteries of dark matter are solved, the elusive Higgs found, and any potential climate crises averted with new and more sustainable technology, within my lifetime.  Yet by the time any new discoveries come to pass, I'm sure there will be even more fascinating questions to explore.

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