Trailblazing Astronomer Vera Rubin on Obsessiveness, Minimizing Obstacles, and How the Thrill of Accidental Discovery Redeems the Terror of Uncertainty
Why all creative endeavor is a matter of “getting hung up on little interesting things.”
By Maria Popova
When trailblazing astronomer Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928–December 25, 2016) was seven, her family moved to a new city. One night, as she peered out her bedroom window into this unfamiliar neighborhood and this uncertain new chapter of life, she found herself enchanted by the night sky and its celestial show of lights. In that transcendent moment, it became unimaginable not to spend her life studying the stars.
This passion animated Rubin’s young career until, in the late 1940s, she attempted to enroll at Princeton for a graduate degree. She was rejected — the university didn’t allow women into the program. But Rubin, who had just graduated from Vassar as the only astronomy major in her class, persevered 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 most significant milestones in our evolving understanding of the universe — and to do pioneering work that illuminates the dynamics of galaxy rotation. The fact that she has not yet received a Nobel Prize remains a point of merited outrage for many, myself included.
Rubin was among the ninety-one creative luminaries whom psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi interviewed in his superb 1996 book Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention (public library) — the same indispensable tome that gave us poet Mark Strand on the artist’s supreme task, Madeleine L’Engle on how to get unstuck, and Csikszentmihalyi on why “psychological androgyny” is essential to creative genius.
In her conversation with Csikszentmihalyi, Rubin reflects on what kept her going despite rejection and resistance:
I think I was terribly naive all along and when I came upon obstacles I don’t think I took them very seriously. I just felt that the people who presented obstacles really did not understand that I really wanted to be an astronomer. And I tended to ignore them or dismiss them, so I don’t think the obstacles have been severe. In general, I think they were just a lack of support. I always met teachers who told me — in college, in graduate school — to go and find something else to study… they didn’t need astronomers… I wouldn’t get a job… I shouldn’t be doing this. And I really just dismissed all that. I just never took it seriously. I wanted to be an astronomer and I didn’t care whether they thought I should or should not. So, somehow or other I just had the self-confidence to ignore all those bits of advice.
Michael Lewis has spoken to this in insisting on the necessary self-delusions of creative work, but what is striking about Rubin’s story — as well as the stories of many women I know, including my own — is that minimizing obstacles by ignoring obstructionists was less a matter of overconfidence or naïveté than a survival strategy. Csikszentmihalyi writes:
The ability of these people to minimize obstacles is well illustrated in how the women responded to our persistent queries about the difficulties they encountered, as women, in their careers. Most of them denied that sex bias or the burden of role conflict produced by dual expectations had any great negative effect on their lives. The general attitude seemed to be “So what else is new?” and “Let’s get on with what needs to be done.” Not that these women are unaware of the difficulties women face in many careers. In fact, they could be very passionate in decrying the special burdens of women.
Rubin herself speaks to this with searing sincerity:
The problem with a question like that is that I survived. There must be lots of people — lots of women especially — who would have liked to have been astronomers, and all of this did matter and therefore they didn’t survive.
Rubin considers the accidental nature of discovery and its uncertain but thrilling rewards:
It takes a lot of courage to be a research scientist. It really does… You invest an enormous amount of yourself, your life, your time, and nothing may come of it. You could spend five years working on a problem and it could be wrong before you are done. Or someone might make a discovery just as you are finishing that could make it all wrong. That’s a very real possibility.
What makes bearing the weight of uncertainty possible is the levity and sheer fun that scientists and creative adventurers find in their work, particularly in those elated moments of discovery. A degree of obsessiveness with a subject is almost always part of the story — for, as the pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner memorably wrote, “discovery … favors the well-prepared mind.”
Rubin herself, in reflecting on making a particularly enchanting accidental discovery pertaining to star rotation within galaxies, speaks to getting “hung up on these little interesting things” — a wonderful phrase that every successful creative person I know embodies in some way. One such “unusually interesting” detail prompted her to fixate further. In a passage that calls to mind French polymath Henri Poincaré’s concept of “sudden illumination,” Rubin describes the partly methodical, partly mystical experience of creative epiphany:
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.
T.S. Eliot explained the “why” with his notion of idea-incubation, but such accounts of obsessive tenacity in the face of doubt and confusion are a common thread weaving together the lives of most of the artists and scientists Csikszentmihalyi interviewed. He considers the unifying disposition of his subjects:
When all goes well, the drudgery is redeemed by success. What is remembered are the high points: the burning curiosity, the wonder at a mystery about to reveal itself, the delight at stumbling on a solution that makes an unsuspected order visible. The many years of tedious calculations are vindicated by the burst of new knowledge. But even without success, creative persons find joy in a job well done. Learning for its own sake is rewarding even if it fails to result in a public discovery.
Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention is an illuminating read in its totality, gleaning insight into the creative process from such luminaries as poet Denise Levertov, sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, social scientist John Gardner, and science writer Stephen Jay Gould. For more of Rubin’s genius, see her 1996 Berkeley commencement address on science, stereotypes, and the measure of success.
Published October 16, 2015