Symposium in Honor of the Legacy of Vera Rubin

Georgetown University, June 24 - 26, 2019

Dr. Vera Rubin, who passed away in Dec. 2016, was one of the most important astrophysicists of the 20th and 21st centuries. She received her Ph.D. from Georgetown University in 1954, and pioneered the study of galaxy rotation rates that provided definitive evidence for the existence of Dark Matter. Dr. Rubin was also a fierce and effective advocate for women in science. This symposium to honor and celebrate her legacy brings together astrophysicists whose research was made possible by Dr. Rubin’s discoveries to present the latest developments in the field and discuss the connections with Dr. Rubin’s discoveries.

Other activities include a keynote lecture for the general public, a poster session for contributed posters, a workshop to address current issues facing women in science, including secondary school science teachers, and a visit to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress.

The Symposium will take place on the campus of Georgetown University and is jointly sponsored with Stockholm University, via the Oskar Klein Centre for Cosmoparticle Physics, with additional support from the National Science Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

Scientific Work:

Dr. Rubin’s work in the 1970s showed that 85% of the mass in the Universe is made of Dark Matter. She studied “rotation curves” of galaxies, and found objects moving far too rapidly around the centers of galaxies to be explained by stellar light alone. The data only made sense if a dominant component of Dark Matter was gravitationally pulling on these objects into rapid orbits. Rubin found this same behavior in all galaxies she examined. Her work led to scientific consensus that Dark Matter is real and must be explained. Indeed our own Milky Way Galaxy consists of a flat Disk containing most of the stars, including the Sun, whereas a giant spherical dark matter Halo consists almost entirely of dark matter.

The observational evidence for Dark Matter now includes many other measurements, including gravitational lensing, the Bullet Cluster, the Cosmic Microwave Background, and Big Bang nucleosynthesis. Yet the nature of the Dark Matter remains a mystery. Many candidates have been proposed: Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, axions, primordial black holes, sterile neutrinos, light dark matter, and others. Experiments continue to search for proof that one of these candidates is correct. Yet the problem remains unsolved. The quest to understand, “What is the Universe made of?” is one of the deepest unresolved questions in all of science, and we owe Vera Rubin for discovering the existence of Dark Matter and leading us to try to solve this problem.

Confirmed Participants:

  • Dr. Elena Aprile, Professor of Physics, Columbia University and PI of XENON dark matter experiment
  • Dr. Neta Bahcall, Eugene Higgins Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysical Sciences, Princeton University
  • Dr. Sebastian Baum, Stockholm University
  • Dr. Charles Bennett, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor, Alumni Centennial Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Johns Hopkins University
  • Dr. Kim Boddy, Johns Hopkins University and Univ Texas Austin
  • Dr. Michael Turner Bruce V. and Diana M. Rauner Distinguished Service Professor, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and Department of Physics, University of Chicago
  • Dr. Alessandra Buonanno, Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, and University of Maryland
  • Dr. France Córdova, Director, National Science Foundation
  • Dr. Abigail Fraeman, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Dr. Jonathan Gardner, James Webb Space Telescope, NASA
  • Dr. Martina Gerbino, Argonne National Laboratory
  • Dr. Shirley Ho, Professor of Physics at Princeton Univ. and Senior Scientist, CCA at Flatiron Institute
  • Dr. Florian Kuhnel, Stockholm University
  • Dr. John Mather, Senior Astrophysicist in the Observational Cosmology Laboratory, NASA
  • Dr. James Peebles, Albert Einstein Professor of Science, Princeton University
  • Dr. Hiranya Peiris, Director of Oskar Klein Centre at Stockholm University and Professor of Physics at University College, London
  • Dr. Pearl Sandick, Associate Professor of Physics, University of Utah
  • Dr. Paul Shapiro, Frank N. Edmonds, Jr. Regents Professor in Astronomy, UT Austin
  • Dr. David Spergel Director of Center for Computational Astrophysics at the Flatiron Institute in NY and Professor of Physics, Princeton University
  • Dr. Pat Stengel, Stockholm University
  • Dr. Virginia Trimble, Professor of Physics & Astronomy at UC, Irvine
  • Dr. Luca Visinelli, Stockholm University
  • Dr. Risa Wechsler, Director of Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) at Stanford Univ / SLAC

Vera Rubin giving the 1997 commencement speech for Georgetown College. She also received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters during the ceremony.

John Glenn meets with Vera Rubin when he visits Georgetown in 1963, a year after he became the first American to orbit the earth.

Georgetown Astronomy Department - 1965

Vera Rubin at the Lowell Observatory in 1965. Photo courtesy of the Carnegie Institution for Science.

Vera Rubin at her “measuring engine,” used to examine photographic plates, in 1974. Photo courtesy of the Carnegie Institution for Science.