Vera Rubin: Bringing the Dark to Light

As our society became less dependent on brute strength, and more dependent on intelligence, women fought diligently to remove restrictions and prejudices regarding their recognition and advancement, as we see in this collaboration between the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company and the University of Colorado's Fisk Planetarium, which highlights the remarkable contributions of one of the chief pioneers of this transformation—Vera Rubin—in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics, as well as for her efforts in the gender normalization of science.

Mackenzie Sherburne as Vera Rubin
Mackenzie Sherburne
as Vera Rubin
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Rubin (Mackenzie Sherburne) is credited with the invention of the concept of "dark matter," which accounts for aberrations in the expected behavior of large-scale masses. Rubin came up with this explanation following her observations of various galaxies, beginning with Andromeda. Basically, according to Sir Isaac Newton's discovery and breakthrough work on gravity, the stars on the perimeter of spiral galaxies should be moving faster than the stars on the interior of the system, but they don't. These original observations led Rubin to deduce that there was unaccounted for mass that was causing this behavior, so-called dark matter.

Despite the grief and ridicule she confronted within the male-dominated academic establishment, she broke new ground in virtually every aspect of her field.

Mackenzie Sherburne as Vera Rubin and Chip Persons as Sir Isaac Newton
Mackenzie Sherburne as Vera Rubin
and Chip Persons as Sir Isaac Newton
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Sherburne embraces Vera's feistiness with aplomb, so when Newton (Chip Persons) comes to her in a dream to help her work out the solution to the problem of hidden mass, we cheer as she goes toe-to-toe with one of the giants of science. This is a delicious exchange between a brilliant and progressive woman and a chauvanist genius from the Renaissance.

The starfield projections and animations that take us from Mount Palomar (where Rubin was the first woman to use the 200-inch telescope, which was the world's largest and most important telescope from 1949 until 1992) are world class. Rubin's breakthrough work on dark matter came in '60's and '70's.

According to A. H. Goldstein's article in the Boulder Daily Camera, "The show's two-week run at Fiske is geared specifically toward middle school students. School groups from across the metro area will attend the show, and Rubin's story of perseverance and accomplishment is designed specifically to appeal to young girls just beginning to discover the fields of science, engineering, technology and math (STEM)." The show runs 35 minutes.

For her discoveries, Rubin received the Gold Medal of London's Royal Astronomical Society, only the second woman to receive the award along with Caroline Herschel. Later, she was second woman to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

Sir Isaac Newton watches Vera set up the telescope at Mt. Palomar
Sir Isaac Newton watches Vera set up
the telescope at Mt. Palomar Observatory
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Rubin, an observant Jew, sees no conflict between science and religion. In an interview, she stated: "In my own life, my science and my religion are separate. I'm Jewish, and so religion to me is a kind of moral code and a kind of history. I try to do my science in a moral way, and, I believe that, ideally, science should be looked upon as something that helps us understand our role in the universe."1

The world premiere of Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company and Fiske Planetarium's presentation of Vera Rubin: Bringing the Dark to Light, written by William C. Kovacsik, runs through February 6th. For tickets call Brown Paper Tickets at 1-800-838-3006 (Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week), or purchase them in person at the Fiske Planetarium box office, 2414 Regent Drive, Boulder, CO 80309 (Monday - Friday, 9am - 4pm).

Bob Bows

Footnote: 1

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