Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Summary of the Symposium Honoring Vera Rubin

By Jessica L. Rosenberg

A symposium honoring the legacy of Vera Rubin was held at Georgetown University June 24-26, 2019. Rubin, who passed away in 2016, was a pioneer in astronomy who used measurements of the rotation curves of galaxies to infer the presence of large amounts of matter out to their observed edges. She found that her measurements of the motion of stars around the centers of the galaxies implied the existence of an unknown type of matter, now called dark matter, in amounts exceeding that of the observed matter.

The symposium brought together prominent scientists whose work builds on Rubin’s legacy. Neta Bahcall, James Peebles, and Virginia Trimble all provided the personal and scientific context for her early work and set the stage for the research that builds on her work to the current day. The symposium included discussions of different observational approaches to understanding the matter content of the universe from the cosmic microwave background to the smallest galaxies and observational and theoretical attempts to understand possible sources for the dark matter.

The breadth of the cutting-edge science presented at the symposium was a testament to the importance of the work that Rubin did and how it continues to influence a wide range of astronomical research. It is also work that continues to shape the national investments in astronomy as discussed by France Córdova, Director of the National Science Foundation. Córdova also shared reminiscences of working with Rubin and how she was personally influenced by her work with women in astronomy.

Throughout the conference, speakers described the ways in which Rubin, directly and indirectly, influenced them. They talked about her scientific work and her deep commitment to the success of women in astronomy. She clearly has had a tremendous impact as a friend, mentor, advocate, and inspiration for many of the attendees at the meeting projecting a legacy that extends far beyond her brilliant scientific endeavors.

The final day of the conference was devoted to Rubin’s work on advocating for and supporting women in science. Abagail Fraeman talked about meeting Rubin as a young summer student at Georgetown, studying Mars as part of the Curiosity rover team, and the joy of naming one of the Martian features explored by Curiosity the Vera Rubin Ridge. The talk was followed by a panel discussion organized and moderated by Pearl Sandick. The panelists included Abagail Fraeman, Katherine Freese, and Kathryne Sparks Woodle who described their science, their personal journeys, and challenges and strategies for increasing the representation of women in Physics and Astronomy. The session also included roundtable discussions of how to support women in STEM, a poster session, and a chance to network.

Videos of the symposium talks will be made available on the conference website.

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