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Pioneering Astronomer Vera Rubin on Science, Stereotypes, and Success

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“Science is competitive, aggressive, demanding. It is also imaginative, inspiring, uplifting.”

When pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin, born on July 23, 1928, graduated from Vassar in 1948, she was the only astronomy major in her class. She was rejected by Princeton’s graduate school, which didn’t allow women into the program, and eventually received a master’s from Cornell in 1950 and a Ph.D. from Georgetown in 1954. She went on to confirm the existence of dark matter — one of the most important milestones in the history of understanding space — by proving beyond doubt that galaxies spin faster than Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation dictates they should. As if being a trailblazing woman in science in the 1950s weren’t already challenging, Rubin was at first severely criticized for her theories, but once her evidence proved indisputable even for the greatest skeptics in the astronomy community, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences as only the third female astronomer and was eventually awarded the National Medal of Science, America’s most prestigious scientific accolade.

Vera Rubin shakes hands with President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore upon receiving the 1993 National Medal of Science. (Photo courtesy Emilio Segre Visual Archives)

On May 17, 1996 — exactly 48 years after her own graduation in 1948 — Rubin addressed the graduating class at Berkeley. The transcript of her timeless and timely commencement speech was included in her altogether excellent 1997 anthology of essays, Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters (public library).

The invitation to address you tonight came while I was preparing to go observing at Kitt Peak National Observatory, to study orbits of gas and stars and galaxies. And on several disappointing rainy nights, I wondered what you might like to hear on this momentous day in your lives. I wondered if you realized how long is your past, and how much more there is in your future. I remembered a Peanuts cartoon that my family likes. Lucy is saying to Charlie Brown, “on the oceans of the world are many ships, and some of them carry passengers. One of the things the passengers like to do is to sit on the deck and watch the water. Some of the passengers like to face forward, so they can see where they are going, and some like to face backwards, to see where they have been.” And then Lucy asks Charlie, “On the ship of life, which way are you going to place your chair: to see where you are going or to see where you have been?” And Charlie Brown replies, “I can’t seem to get my chair unfolded.”

Well, my chair is OK, and tonight I am going to look backward, to tell you how you are connected to the early universe, and how the early universe connects to Berkeley, 1996.

Rubin goes on to give a sweeping tour of the history of astronomy to answer the deceptively simple, windingly complex question of where in the universe Berkeley, California is. Much like the magnificent Charles and Ray Eames film The Powers of Ten, she traces the journey of a single carbon atom from 15 billion years ago to the miracle of the human body, by way of a glass of milk, then brings it all back to the awareness that we are all stardust:

You drank the milk, the carbon atom entered your bloodstream, traveled to your brain, displaced a carbon atom, and took part in the thought process permitting you to pass your final exam. So without that single carbon atom, made in some star billions of years ago, you might have failed to receive your diploma today. See how lucky you have been?

This then is the answer to the question, “Where in the universe is Berkeley, California?”

She then grounds this Feynman-like, Sagan-esque poetic meditation in the real world with a vital, prescient reminder of what is needed to save science:

So that is your past. And now, you must turn your chairs to face the future. You are concerned tonight with more than the fate of atoms. You need jobs, admissions to graduate schools, research support; you want a healthy planet, space, choices. Individually, you will be called by many names: spouse, partner, teacher, professor, writer, representative, president, CEO, doctor, judge, regent. Some will be called scientists. For those of you who teach science, I hope that you will welcome, as students, those who do NOT intend to be scientists, as well as those who DO. We need senators who have studied physics and representatives who understand ecology.

And for those of you who choose to be scientists, I have one piece of advice. Don’t give up. Science is hard and demanding, but each of you must believe that you can succeed. It may seem unlikely tonight, but there is not one among you who cannot make important, major contributions to the world of science. At my commencement on May 17, 48 years ago, the probability that I would be addressing you tonight surely was zero.

Rubin ends with a timeless meditation on finding one’s purpose and not only withstanding but actively pushing back against the torrents of discrimination:

Instead of advice, I offer my hopes for you. I hope you will stay alert and heed the words of Yogi Berra: “You can see a lot by just looking.” I hope your lives will be filled with health and peace, that you understand there is much work to be done in the world and that many of you will choose to join with those who work and lead. I hope you will disdain mediocrity and aim to excel in whatever you do. I hope you will love your work as I love doing astronomy. I hope that you will fight injustice and discrimination in all its guises. I hope you will value diversity among your friends, among your colleagues, and, unlike some of your regents, among the student body population. I hope that when you are in charge, you will do better than my generation has. In 1993, U.S. universities awarded Ph.D. degrees in physics and Astronomy to a total of nine black Americans. You do better.

[…]

My achievements in science came about because I knew what I wanted to do, and I found professional colleagues among helpful, gentle astronomers. I was never discouraged by others who were sometimes discouraging. Instead, I insisted on working on problems outside the main stream of astronomy so that I could work at my own pace and not be pressured by bandwagons. I do not offer this as an example for you, but only to show that there can be diverse approaches to science. There must be. I hope some of you will be able to devise your own paths through the complex sociology of science. Science is competitive, aggressive, demanding. It is also imaginative, inspiring, uplifting. You can do it, too.

[…]

Each one of you can change the world, for you are made of star stuff, and you are connected to the universe.

Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters is a remarkably lucid yet stimulatingly mind-bending read in its entirety. Complement Rubin’s commencement address with more timeless words of wisdom to graduating seniors: Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, Neil Gaiman on making good art, Greil Marcus on “high” and “low” culture, Arianna Huffington on redefining success, Joss Whedon on embracing our inner contradictions, Oprah Winfrey on failure and finding your purpose, Judith Butler on the value of reading and the humanities, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Bill Watterson on creative integrity, and older favorites by Ellen DeGeneres, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos.

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