We are part of this universe; we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us.
— Neil deGrasse Tyson
We’ve long-since established my emotional susceptibility to anything remotely having to do with nuclear physics, astrophysics, microphysics, biophysics, neurophysics … you get the drift. Despite my contention that the American sitcom went precipitously downhill the day M*A*S*H left the air, I’ve been known to watch and enjoy episodes of Third Rock from the Sun (featuring your favorite Princeton townie, John Lithgow) and even The Big Bang Theory, where George Takei, Bill Nye, and Buzz Aldrin might just stop by. Meanwhile, the current National Geographic quasi-science series Star Talk is a big-time guilty pleasure: “your personal astrophysicist” Neil deGrasse Tyson doing comedy bits and interviews with glitzy guests like William Shatner or Whoopi Goldberg about how they get their jollies from geeky science the same way I do. Tyson is the perfect teacher to guide the show, partly because he gets to do it in his spiffy planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York (where he’s the director), and partly because he flat-out loves teaching (he was on the Princeton faculty from 1991-2003). He gets so enthused he borders on proselytizing on behalf of the scientific method, and that’s infectious. This spills over into his new book — written along with his teaching teammates Michael Strauss and Richard Gott *73 of the astrophysics department — Welcome to the Universe, a layman’s almost gleeful version of their now-legendary Astrophysics 203 course for non-scientists.
I mention this because of a fine article in the Lives Lived and Lost, 2016 edition of Your Favorite Periodical, in which Kenneth Chang ’87 remembers the late Debbie Jin ’90, who last year died of cancer at only 47 years old. A brilliant physicist, recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant” at age 34, two years later the second-youngest woman ever named to the National Academy of Sciences, and often mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate, she worked with superconductors at a time when essentially anything she did was by definition on the cutting edge of her field. Even as we venture deeper into the 21st century, it is noteworthy to read about women in the front ranks of physics, or in other STEM disciplines at the world-class level of the Princeton faculty. Indeed, the same can still be said of African American women and men, which is one thing that called to mind Tyson and his high-profile presence as an apostle of science. While he dismisses ethnic issues as irrelevant to his work, his visibility says volumes about multiple facets of our culture and its progress, but also about how far we have to go. Today there’s an active group at Princeton supporting women in the STEM fields. You can read about different complexities of this situation and potential advancements in the University’s efforts in faculty hiring and grad-student development in support of its strategic diversity goals (including a clever physics bridge program), but the fact remains that to this day the faculty in physics and astrophysics at Princeton is essentially non-black and about 10 percent female.
So imagine what it was like in 1948. That was the year Vera Rubin graduated with her degree in astronomy, from Vassar. She was the only one in her class. Never shy about her interest in her field or her own abilities, she wanted to study physics with the likes of future Nobelist Eugene Wigner and the legendary John Archibald Wheeler, and cosmologists Bob Dicke ’39, Lyman Spitzer Jr. *38, and Spitzer’s mentor Henry Norris Russell *1899, and so she wrote to Princeton to apply for the Ph.D. program. She was early by 27 years, to the Graduate School’s apparent way of reckoning, and they even refused to send her a course catalog, much less an application form. So she went to Cornell, where she studied quantum physics with Hans Bethe, whom Princeton had tried to poach for its own department 10 years before, and with the irrepressible Richard Feynman *43, prize student of Wheeler at Princeton; both Bethe and Feynman would eventually win the Nobel Prize.
Rubin’s lifelong research field was stunningly clear early on: Her master’s thesis at Cornell dealt with problems in the motion of galaxies that, many years later, would evolve into her measurements leading to the definition of dark matter, the sticky stuff we can’t identify that holds a large portion of the universe together. This field gained momentum in 1973 when Princeton professors Jerry Ostriker (later University provost) and Dicke’s student Jim Peebles *62 explicitly proffered that galaxies couldn’t behave the way they did without an enveloping secret force. Even with that encouragement, Rubin had to fight multiple rounds of testosterone-laden red tape to get even a modest amount of time on the telescope at Mount Palomar to begin measuring the stellar motion necessary to impute what dark matter might be all about. She ended up, along with her research partner Kent Ford Jr., estimating that the unseen matter in the universe was five to 10 times the bulk of visible matter, and that number has held up remarkably; current approximations are 5 percent matter in the universe vs. 27 percent dark matter. If the slightest corporeal scintilla of dark matter had ever appeared, her spot on the Nobel stand was ready and waiting for her, but of course it has not. Three months following her young fellow physicist Jin, Vera Rubin died at age 88 last December, at her home in Princeton, of all places. She resides in the rarefied “Why not a Nobel?” world with Wheeler, Peebles, Dicke, and Debbie Jin.
When Tyson, Strauss, and Spitzer’s student Gott created the new Astrophysics 203 at Princeton, Rubin and her dark matter were a prominent part. To continue a lifetime of seemingly fated interaction with the University that snubbed her in 1948, acclaimed astrophysicist/writer Alan Lightman ’70 — who had studied with Wheeler’s students Feynman and Kip Thorne *65 at Caltech — in 2005 published a series of essays about the interaction of creativity and science entitled The Sense of the Mysterious, including insightful pieces on both Feynman and Rubin. And in the same year, the forces (as it were) at Princeton, following decades on an eerily parallel path to her, recognized Vera Rubin with an honorary doctorate, noting with admiration:
A childhood fascination with the motion of stars led her to a half-century career that has illuminated our view of the universe. Through meticulous observations, she revealed the presence of vast quantities of a mysterious, unseen substance called dark matter. Her research leaves us with the unsettling yet inspiring conclusion that all the familiar materials of our Earth and sun – hydrogen, oxygen, even gold and silver – are but minor players in a universe made mostly of matter we can barely fathom. Even when facing the skepticism of peers, her contagious enthusiasm and dedicated professionalism have made her a mentor and role model to many who follow the beacon of her example.
I understand they even offered to send her a course catalog, gratis.
The University is now rethinking its iconography and naming conventions in the light of last year’s Woodrow Wilson 1879 symbology debates. Tacitly, better recognition of women important to the University’s history is an integral part of that. The walk (ironically, one of the highest honors we have) named for president/microbiologist Shirley Tilghman that connects the science and arts complexes on the south end of campus is a fine start for the STEM women, as we’ve noted before. Recognition in Jadwin Hall or Bowen Hall for Debbie Jin would be a great idea too. Some sort of astrophysics teaching award named for Neil deGrasse Tyson along with his co-creators Strauss and Gott seems proper. But perhaps for us, the Seasoned Historians, it would be even more important to recognize the human spirit embodied in a person with great dreams whom we turned away without so much as a bumper sticker, who then spent 57 years pursuing and realizing those very dreams, and whom we at long last then recognized as a dreamer the equal of any of our own. Remember the lesson of Vera Rubin, and remember it well.