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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Vera Cooper Rubin

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Interview with Dr. Vera Cooper Rubin
By David DeVorkin
At the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Carnegie Institution of Washington;
May 9, 1996
open tab View abstract

Vera Rubin; May 9, 1996

ABSTRACT: This interview is part of a small program to document the recent history of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). These interviews were used as background studies to help authors of chapters of the centennial history volume of the Society research and organize documentary materials. The volume to be published in 1999. This interview discusses Rubin's family background and years at Vassar; working at Naval Research Laboratory; influence of Richard Feynman on her studies at Cornell; teaching, observational work and spectroscopy at Georgetown; AAS meetings.

Transcript

Session I | Session II

DeVorkin:

This is an oral history interview with Vera Cooper Rubin. The date is the ninth of May, 1996. The interviewer is David DeVorkin. The auspices is the American Institute of Physics (AIP) and the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

This is the second session with Dr. Rubin. Vera, I'd like to take you back to Cornell [University], 1948, '49, '50. We've already talked about how you met your husband, Robert Rubin, and how you decided to be a graduate student, but we have not talked much about how you chose your thesis, who was influential in that choice, and the outcome of that thesis.

Rubin:

I entered Cornell in 1948 as a graduate student. I think I was met at the door by Professor [William] Shaw, who told me to, "Go find something else to study. There were no jobs in astronomy; there were very few observatories; nobody needed more astronomers." I had heard this kind of thing off and on, but it just never mattered at all.

I was employed as a graduate assistant in his elementary astronomy course, which, unfortunately, conflicted with the usual first-year graduate physics course. It was a very small department. There were some astronomy courses but not very many, certainly at the graduate level. I did a lot of work in physics. This meant I couldn't do the classical mechanics—classical electrodynamics sequence. For reasons that I no longer remember, I had Richard Feynman as my physics advisor, and he talked me into taking his course in quantum electrodynamics before I had had classical electrodynamics, to break this conflict. The most interesting astronomy courses I had were under Martha Stahr, who was later Martha Stahr Carpenter.

She had recently come from Berkeley and was deep into galaxy dynamics. I really learned a lot from her. I really no longer remember why I was always interested in galaxies, but I was. So her course in galaxy dynamics really set me off on a direction that I followed almost my entire career. I was looking for a master's thesis. I know that my husband showed me a Science or Nature — possibly Nature — article by George Gamow on "Rotation of the Universe."

I cannot say that the impetus came from there. I just no longer remember. I may have, by that time, already decided on the program. I was aware of the, I guess it's 1933, Handbook of Astrophysics [Handbuch der Astrophysik], in which H.D. Curtis had an article of all the known galaxies with their radial velocities and their magnitudes,[1]and it just seemed to be a very logical extension to take the Oort Theory of Galactic Rotation as it applied to stars and galaxies and just see if you could apply it to galaxies in the universe.

DeVorkin:

So you took out the radial motion?

Rubin:

I took out the expansion motion. I gave every galaxy a distance based on its magnitude, took out the expansion corresponding to that distance, took the residual velocities and plotted them on a globe, on a sphere, and looked for regions where there were positives and negatives. Although I really never clearly put it that way, I was using the Oort Theory only because I knew of no other mechanism. What I really was looking for was whether there were large regions of positive and negative velocities.

DeVorkin:

You weren't looking for differential motion?

Rubin:

No.

DeVorkin:

You were looking for large groups moving.

Rubin:

That's right.

DeVorkin:

Cluster motion?

Rubin:

Well, this was so long ago that the concept of a supergalactic plane or the supergalaxy did not even exist.

DeVorkin:

The galaxy counts of Shane-Wirtanen had begun, at least.

Rubin:

They had begun, but they weren't published. No, no, they didn't start until '53.

DeVorkin:

What about the Shapley-Ames catalogue?

Rubin:

The Shapley-Ames existed, but the lore was that interstellar or intergalactic extinction was making the distribution look uneven, and in fact, I remember as a young astronomer the word about the early Shane-Wirtanen results was that the lumps you were seeing weren't real.

There were all kinds of comments about the plate density; the limiting magnitude from one plate to the next wasn't constant, that you had all these extinction effects. So I wrote my thesis under her, made an analysis. It was essentially inverting matrices. Writing down the equations produced the result. The Oort analysis required a plane, so I had to find a plane, a plane of maximum density. And the plane I chose was what later became the supergalactic plane.

DeVorkin:

You found a pole for this distribution?

Rubin:

I did. The work was done in the spring of 1950. I was supposed to take my master's orals in June of '50. The committee consisted of Professor Shaw, Professor Stahr, and Feynman. Feynman left Cornell about a week before my orals without telling me he was going. There was no earthly reason why he should have, and I, therefore, deferred the orals until about October, chose [Philip] Morrison for the committee.

[To give a sense of what else was happening,] our first child was due the end of October. Sometime, in the spring probably, Professor Shaw, who really, so far as I knew, had not been close to the work, had read the thesis and said two things, both of which I remember. He said, "Data are plural."

Rubin:

[In my thesis I had said] "data is," and they all had to be changed to "data are." Then he made another comment, which I have never repeated, to the effect that the work was pretty sloppy. That, he said, was because I learned things fast, and I didn't worry enough about the details. He also said that he thought the work could be presented at the AAS meeting in Haverford in December, but inasmuch as I was not a member and inasmuch as I was expecting a child, I would not be able to go, and he would be willing to give it in his name. Not in my name. I said to him, "Oh, I can go," and that's what got me to the December meeting.

DeVorkin:

Your first child was two, three months old by then?

Rubin:

Our first child was actually due in late in October, and he came November 28. He was slightly less than a month. We had no car. I was nursing the child.

DeVorkin:

You were in Ithaca? This was not close to Haverford.

Rubin:

And it snowed. My parents drove up and drove us to Haverford. I did come from Philadelphia, so there was family there. My mother and father's whole family was there. My father later told me he aged twenty years on that drive from Ithaca to Haverford with his first grandchild in the back of the car, in the snow, across the Poconos, the whatever the mountains are.

DeVorkin:

So your first child, David, came with you?

Rubin:

Yes, we all went.

DeVorkin:

We'll continue this. [Tape recorder turned off for lunch break.] Let's talk just a little bit more about what could have been in Shaw's mind or what was in your mind when you were confronted with that proposal that he had made to you.

Rubin:

He was a very difficult person. I don't remember if I said anything last time. He was very negative. He always attributed the worst possible motives to everyone. If a student came in and asked to take an exam early or late, for any reason, the answer was always no. He would say to me, "You know, well, they wanted to go home and see their mother. How could I possibly say yes? Of course, I had to say no." He just was enormously negative, and he was really unpleasant.

DeVorkin:

You know nothing about his own history that would explain this kind of behavior?

Rubin:

I know nothing about him. I knew he was a navigator during the war. That's absolutely all I know about him.

DeVorkin:

But he was something of an instrument man. He built things. I bring this up because at the time you were doing your thesis, two other things were going on at the observatory that were reported in the usual AJ [Astronomical Journal] reports, and I just wanted to bring them up to you. Professor Stahr was continuing work on a radio astronomy project sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR). What she seemed to be doing at that time was preparing annotated bibliographies and distributing them.

Rubin:

That's right, with a bright red cover like preprints we get today, but they were rather rare. They were a complete bibliography of all the publications. The one I remembered was solar radio astronomy.

DeVorkin:

She was preparing these bibliographies and sending them to the School of Electrical Engineering as radio astronomy reports. Through these years, her connection with radio astronomy seemed to be limited to that, as far as Shaw's reports, but was she doing more? Was she interested in using radio astronomy at that time?

Rubin:

She was not in those years, but then she married. I've really forgotten when, probably after I had left. She spent a year in Australia. Her husband was, I believe, an economist on the Cornell faculty and considerably older than she was. She worked in Australia, I don't know where, probably with the CSIRO [Australian: Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organization] people. Her name is on one of the earliest [Frank] Kerr papers about the warp of the galactic plane.

DeVorkin:

Her married name is Carpenter?

Rubin:

Yes, it's Carpenter on that paper. To the best of my knowledge, she never did any radio astronomy in the U.S.

DeVorkin:

The reason I ask is that Cornell was getting ONR money to build a small radio telescope, and I wanted to know if you knew if there was any connection with the astronomy department.

Rubin:

Not that I know of.

DeVorkin:

She apparently was writing these bibliographies. They were to appear as a report of Commission Five of the International Scientific Radio Union; and that, of course, was in a way filling the gap that the IAU [International Astronomical Union] had left because it had not recognized radio astronomy. Did radio astronomy interest you at all at that time?

Rubin:

No, I think not. It was before the 21-centimeter line had been discovered. I never understood continuum sources. I understood spectral lines. I actually recall thinking it was curious that she spent all her time doing that. All I ever saw her do was teach her classes. She was always accessible, but she spent whatever time she was in her office preparing those bibliographies.

DeVorkin:

Was this the kind of department, though, where the director, Shaw in this case, could tell people what to do?

Rubin:

I just don't know.

DeVorkin:

Shaw, himself, was also supported by the Office of Naval Research at this time, developing a project for the spectrophotometry of the moon's surface, building a coelostat, a horizontally-fed spectrum scanner of some sort. He only reported over the years that you were there, that he was building this equipment. I know previously he'd been interested in building telescopes. Any connection with that, or do you know what he was doing or what people thought of him?

Rubin:

No. I've totally forgotten. Now that you say it, I guess I remember the observatory, the room where that was taking place. As a graduate assistant, I had to go to the observatory four nights a week with the classes. It was very often cloudy, but we went anyway. We did laboratory exercises — he did work very hard on his books of laboratory exercises, and he had very many arrangements to study parallax that went down the hall. They were fairly elaborate, and he took them incredibly seriously. I probably never took them quite as seriously as he would have liked me to. I sort of thought some of them were Mickey Mouse but did them.

DeVorkin:

Was Boothroyd around at that time?

Rubin:

No. I don't think I ever saw Boothroyd. I think he preceded Shaw.

DeVorkin:

Because I know that's a famous textbook.

Rubin:

Yes. It's a laboratory manual that really he took very seriously, took great pride in. The moon business I just don't really know anything about. I don't think I ever saw him observing.

DeVorkin:

In the '51-'52 report, it does say that Professor Stahr published her bibliography, gave a paper on radio waves from the sun. You mentioned that one of them was on the sun, but it sounded popular. It was the period of the book Science Marches On, published by General Electric. But then she continued her search for radio stars and skybursts in the radio astronomy project.

Rubin:

She did start observing. I was really unaware.

DeVorkin:

That was probably after you left. That's my guess.

Rubin:

I was followed by Betty Mintz [Blanco]. Does he say that?

DeVorkin:

No, he said only that a graduate student and teaching assistant followed you when you, he says, "Resigned as graduate assistant," which is an interesting term.

Rubin:

[Laughter] That is interesting.

DeVorkin:

Yes, and I want to ask you about it. Mr. Melville Short joined the staff as a graduate teaching assistant.

Rubin:

No, I don't know that name at all. Betty Mintz was a student in my class. She was an undergraduate student. She stood out. Among other things, she knew how to use a protractor. She is now Betty Blanco and spent some intervening years at the Naval Observatory in Washington where she met Victor Blanco. She certainly became a teaching assistant, and I really thought she followed me. It would be interesting to see if he put her name in any of the later ones.

Rubin:

I'd like to consider his word "resigned." That's very strange. He knew at the time I arrived that my husband was getting a PhD., and I only had a few years, and therefore, I was only a candidate for a master's degree. I don't even believe the department gave a PhD. So I finished and got my master's and went on. If that's resigning, that's resigning. I don't know. It's very much in keeping with Shaw's attitude. I really believe he always put the most negative view on anything that he touched.

DeVorkin:

Yes, I'm looking now to see if anyone else resigned. He does mention special professors, special lecturers who came in, and always the number of students who were registered to the number of how many student were taking courses. That was always very important to him. It must have been a very important part of the existence of the observatory. But, no, during this time no one else resigned or left in any particular way. Yes, sorry, someone did. "R.E. Williamson, instructor in astronomy, resigned to accept a position at David Dunlap Observatory." So he used that term.

Rubin:

Well, maybe he just used that word every time someone left.

DeVorkin:

Okay. Actually, in '47-'48, he also talks a little bit more about the fact that the department is cooperating with the School of Electrical Engineering in carrying out an investigation of extraterrestrial radiation, approximately two meters to one centimeter in wavelength. This is always, of course, in hindsight, a very interesting question. Why did they choose that particular wavelength? Of what astronomical interest was it? At this point do you recall any discussions?

Rubin:

I don't even think I knew anything about that. An interesting question is why that didn't present itself as a master's thesis. I don't think it was ever even mentioned, although it may have been, and I may have just forgotten it, or I may have said no.

DeVorkin:

Let's talk about the meeting at Haverford, the harrowing trip the day before.

Rubin:

Well, I must have registered for the meeting in some sense, but I only attended for the session that I spoke at. I knew no one, not a single astronomer there. It was in the morning. In those days, the AAS program was just continuous. They just listed all the papers, and they just broke for coffee, and they broke at the end of the day, and they continued. But I must have known that it was going to be that morning, which I don't think was the first morning, but I'm not even sure of that.

DeVorkin:

There were no parallel sessions or anything like this?

Rubin:

None at all. We left the baby with my mother and my aunt at my grandmother's house. My father drove my husband and me to the meeting. I guess I should back up and say that the day before, my mother and my aunt took me out and bought me a dress to give this talk in. I had prepared the talk enormously carefully, as I used to. I essentially memorized a ten-minute talk, every sentence. I haven't looked at a program, so I don't even know what I heard before me. But I got up, gave my paper. I had called it "Rotation of the Universe," with the enthusiasm of youth. My paper was followed by a rather acrimonious discussion. I didn't know anyone, so I didn't know who these people were that were getting up and saying the things they said.

As I recall, all the comments were negative except one when this little man with a very high-pitched voice sort of ended the discussion by saying, as Martin Schwarzschild always does wonderfully to young people, "This is a very interesting thing to have attempted, and the data may not be quite good enough, and so forth, but it was interesting." I should back up a couple months and tell you that Martha Stahr did try two things. She wrote to [Milton] Humason or [N.] Mayall, either one — probably Mayall, because she knew him — saying that she had a student working on looking into this, and were any of his velocities available. The word came back that they would be published in a year or two. That ultimately turned into "Humason, Mayall, Sandage, '55."

Then we also heard that Gödel at Princeton was working on rotating universes, doing the theoretical work, a mathematician who has this famous theory about some things being unproven. We heard that in a year or two there would be a theory of rotating universes, and we heard from the observers that next year they would publish 500 radial velocities. So again, I just went ahead anyway. Some of the comments at the meeting related to many things: one, the fact that I had not found probable errors — mean errors — on the coefficients I had determined. That was discussed at great length. I think I ended this entire discussion — not intending to — on a very humorous note, saying that I had not found the errors because everything in the problem was so nebulous, not realizing what I was saying. One of the people that protested the most turned out later to be Frank Edmondson. He was just this bearded astronomer.

Then my husband, who was doing some molecular spectroscopy at the time, went to some Ohio State molecular spectroscopy conference, and about a year later Frank Edmondson came to Washington — this is now like '55 — and called me. By then I knew the name and knew his work. I guess maybe I was still a graduate student and was going on to motions along spiral arms, and he had done similar work. I asked him to come to the house for dinner, and my husband was going to pick him up.

As he got in the car, Bob, my husband, said to me, "I wonder if he still has his beard," which was the first indication that this man who was to come to dinner was the man who had jumped on me — as I recall — about the hardest at the AAS meeting. Bob had seen him in this intervening meeting and had learned who he was and didn't realize that I still didn't know.

DeVorkin:

He was very, very much into statistical work in the thirties. That must have been a very important part of his own thinking.

Rubin:

Yes. I cannot recall any of the other comments. Then at that point the chairman — to this day I don't know who it was — called a coffee break, decided that would be a good time to have a break. I got up to leave. Was it Dirk Brouwer who was the editor of the AJ?

DeVorkin:

That's likely.

Rubin:

Brouwer came up to me — I didn't know who he was more than anybody else – and he said to me, "I'm sorry, we can't publish an abstract in the AJ entitled `Rotation of the Universe,' so I will call it `Rotation of the Metagalaxy.'" I didn't pick that name. So I said, "Fine, thank you," and we left. And that was the end of my meeting.

DeVorkin:

So you didn't stay for the whole meeting.

Rubin:

I came for the session I spoke at and left.

DeVorkin:

What was your impression of the society of astronomers?

Rubin:

It was so long ago. I had enormous confidence in what I had done. You may say I shouldn't have done it. The data may have been terrible, but I think I took a pile of numbers and handled them in the most careful fashion I knew, and I thought it was worth reporting. I think I did not understand how far off of the establishment I was going. It never occurred to me that this was not the kind of thing that someone else could have done.

DeVorkin:

Would you attribute that to a lack of direction at Cornell? Isolation?

Rubin:

I don't know whether lack of direction is the right word. I think it was just not being at a research institution that was very close to the kind of things people were doing. I think it's very clear that had I been at a different place, I probably wouldn't have done it. I also might not have become an astronomer. When I gave a review of large-scale motions at the De Vaucouleurs seventieth anniversary meeting in Paris in the late eighties, Frank Kerr commented that for reasons he could no longer remember, he was at the council meeting before that Haverford meeting.

At the head of the program of that meeting they always printed: "Subject to the action of the council, the following papers will be presented." And there was a very long discussion about whether they would permit my paper to be presented. So people were already worried before I walked in. I think the truth is I was so engaged with this child and the mechanism of getting there, and I had a new dress, and I thought I gave my paper as well as I could have, so I walked out quite satisfied. I was certainly mildly distressed by some of the comments although I guess I thought that's how astronomers behaved.

DeVorkin:

Did you hear comments on other papers by the audience?

Rubin:

I do not remember at all. I don't even believe I got there for the start of the session. I think I probably just walked in.

DeVorkin:

But you do remember Schwarzschild saying something that was generally kind?

Rubin:

I do. I remember exactly where he was sitting. In fact, he was very helpful. He wrote to me about six months later telling me he had heard I was having trouble getting the paper published and could he help.

DeVorkin:

Published as the abstract?

Rubin:

No, as a paper. The paper was rejected by both the ApJ [Astrophysical Journal] and the AJ. In fact, I can tell you a long story about that. My life is very convoluted.

DeVorkin:

Sure, please.

Rubin:

It's hard to know. In the early sixties, '63-'64, when I was at La Jolla, I went to the first Relativistic Astrophysics Symposium in Texas. Dallas. I wasn't even supposed to go. My husband was supposed to go, and I don't know, he's not a great meeting-goer, and a few days before the meeting he said he really didn't think he wanted to go. Really, on the spur of the moment, I said, "Well, maybe I'll go," and I went. It was a fine meeting. I published a letter in Physics Today very recently when they told the history of that meeting, and I told the story of Harlan Smith discussing the variation of 3C 273, and he was followed by Jesse Greenstein, who walked up to the stage — you had to go up one step — turned and faced the audience and said, "If 3C 273 is changing in magnitude, I'll eat my hat."

I wrote that, and they asked Jesse for a rejoinder, and he was very angry. I wrote the letter, and Physics Today published it along with his answer to my comment to that comment. This was a letter in Physics Today three years ago when they were celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the conference, and I recalled that incident, and they asked Jesse to write a rejoinder, and he was very upset because he never remembered saying it, and history after the fact is always easy. It's not the first time he's objected to a letter I've written in Physics Today. But that's not what I was going to tell you. That's beside the point. I was invited to a party that night by some of my husband's friends at the Texas meeting.

This is all because I'm not sure whether to use the astronomer's name or not. I was invited to a party because many of the physicists there had been at my house as friends of my husband's. W.W. Morgan and I took a cab to go to the party. During that evening, several things happened all involving W.W. Morgan. The first thing that happened was that he was overly friendly. It is the only night in my life I've had a problem with an astronomer.

DeVorkin:

This is sexual?

Rubin:

Yes. That's why I don't know what I want to do with this, but except for my husband and Ralph Alpher, a very dear old friend, no one knows. Also during that night, he asked me why I had never published my master's thesis. I looked at him, unbelieving, because the letter rejecting it is over his signature.

DeVorkin:

That was the period when he was editor.

Rubin:

Yes. And I told him that. He asked me what the letter said. This is now thirteen years after the fact, and I told him to the best of my recollection. In fact, I found it a very insulting letter. I no longer have a copy. I moved around, didn't keep things. I have a copy of the AJ rejection, but I cannot find a copy of the ApJ rejection. But I remembered the AJ was a little positive. If I redid some things, they might publish it. But by then I had more children, I was working on my doctorate, so I never considered it.

The ApJ, as I remember it, was enormously insulting. It questioned whether I had gotten galaxy distances from their red shifts, which is a meaningless procedure because there would then have been no velocity residuals. It questioned whether I had done a sensible analysis. I told Morgan all this, and he said that sounded like Chandrasekhar. He said that Chandrasekhar was just down the hall, and he might very well have walked down and asked Chandrasekhar to review it. I also, that night, went to Ralph Alpher.

Nothing really happened. Morgan was just annoying. I asked Ralph to come home with us and not to leave me alone with him. The end of that story is we got in the elevator and came to whatever floor, and I got out and Morgan got out and Ralph didn't. And the next morning at breakfast Ralph was worried because he said he had forgotten to protect me and hadn't realized until we had gotten out of the elevator that he had not. [Laughter] So that's the story. So that's how it's tied in. I mean, isn't life curious? That was a very strange evening for me.

DeVorkin:

Well, learning that, listening to Morgan under those circumstances and then having him imply it was Chandrasekhar, I mean, it's very enlightening. Just asking a little bit more about the sense of the Society and your impressions of being a professional astronomer at this juncture is important to me.

DeVorkin:

As you said, the American Astronomical Society Council would decide what papers would be given, what would not be given. It probably was not a very big meeting, I imagine.

Rubin:

No, none of them were.

DeVorkin:

You didn't know anyone, but it must have been clear to you that everybody knew everybody else. Was that a feeling?

Rubin:

I'm not even sure that was clear to me because I really think I came in while a session was going on. I walked out when they called a coffee break. I didn't go get coffee; it never occurred to me to. I guess one of the other things that just came back about my presentation was that they didn't like the procedure, "they" being the people who complained. The fact that I had plotted these data on a sphere seemed to them a very unprofessional way.

I physically plotted them on a sphere and looked for regions where the positive and negative residuals [appeared]. I had reduced them all to a mean distance by taking out their expansion velocity. I was looking just at their [peculiar motions]. I think I put their comments in the same category as Shaw's comments about going to find something else to study. I really felt very much that I was a student.

I realized to be a professional astronomer you had to have a PhD. I felt that I was [only] part-way there. I think I realized that what I was doing – having a family and going to school — was complicated and unconventional, and I really never knew whether it would work. But I planned to give it the best try I could, and I just felt like the work and the talk was something I did along the way. I believe that I put these people in a very special class. They were professional astronomers, and I was not.

DeVorkin:

At that point.

Rubin:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

So you didn't have any preconceptions of the professional society, being a part of that society?

Rubin:

No.

DeVorkin:

Literally you spoke to no one when you were there individually?

Rubin:

That's absolutely true.

DeVorkin:

Was either Shaw or Stahr there?

Rubin:

No. I don't think so. Now, I could be wrong. Well, I don't know. I don't think I spoke to them if they were there.

DeVorkin:

In the 1960's, this paper was cited a bit, not much, but there were two citations.

Rubin:

I don't think I know that.

DeVorkin:

Yes. One by De Vaucouleurs.

Rubin:

Oh, yes, that I know.

DeVorkin:

And one by a man named Idlis and later by Dennis Sciama. Do you recall any conversations with any of these people?

Rubin:

Yes. De Vaucouleurs — well, in fact, I heard from several people following the meeting. I got a wonderful letter from Edwin Carpenter, who was taking the train back to Arizona, telling me of his interest in my talk. Just a wonderful letter. I heard from De Vaucouleurs. De Vaucouleurs continued to write, continued to ask me questions. We corresponded. I met him. He came to Washington with [his wife] Antoinette.

So all the time he was working on his supercluster and supergalactic plane, we were in contact. He was really very generous. Well, he was the one who pointed out that the plane I had used was what he was calling the supergalactic plane, and I think he was happy for the earlier work, in a sense, to give some credence to what he was doing, even if the results were different. So we became really quite close friends.

DeVorkin:

You went back to Ithaca. Your husband was finishing up his graduate work?

Rubin:

Yes, after a stop in D.C. Do you know that the next day that paper made the front pages of many newspapers, including the Washington Post? With the headline, "Young Mother Finds Center of Creation." When I became the Oort lecturer or maybe when I got the Medal of Science, our Dutch friends in town — wonderful, wonderful friends, physicists — remembering that, created a little newspaper account on their PC that says, "Old Grandmother Gets — " whatever it was, and they typed up this little article and sent it to me as a congratulations.

DeVorkin:

Now, how did that happen?

Rubin:

I've never questioned. I really thought maybe you would know. An AP [Associated Press] reporter was there, presumably. Many of them called me Vera Hubin, I think. It came out as H-U-B-I-N in some [papers] — Ithaca must have carried it. We came back to Washington and spent the Christmas vacation here. I cannot even tell you at this point how we got back to Ithaca. We must have been driven back. Neither of my parents are alive. It's lost in history.

DeVorkin:

You couldn't have run into James Stokley by any chance?

Rubin:

I know who he is.

DeVorkin:

He would have been at the astronomy meetings. He was from the Fels Planetarium, and he was connected to various news services, to Science and Science Service, places like that. I'm just wondering.

Rubin:

Whether he wrote them?

DeVorkin:

Or somehow that you did speak to someone about it.

Rubin:

I think I did not. There was confusion when I got up. I just don't remember. So when you ask how I felt, by and large I felt pretty good. [Laughter] I made the newspapers, even if people didn't like it. I mean, even if the astronomers didn't like it. I think I understood exactly what I was doing. I didn't think it was phenomenal. I was writing a master's thesis. I thought it was a fine master's thesis, a fine subject for a master's thesis. Like I say, I thought I gave a good talk, as good as I could have done, and that was that.

DeVorkin:

Let's finish up the master's thesis.

Rubin:

Well, I think that's the end.

DeVorkin:

But this was the middle of the year. This was a December meeting or a January meeting. Where was your husband in his own training, and what were your future plans?

Rubin:

I had finished my course work, which was probably two full years of lots of physics, in the summer of '50 as I'd planned to, and then have the baby. Then things were delayed because of Feynman's leaving. My master's orals were in October.

DeVorkin:

October of '50?

Rubin:

'50, yes. So I was really through. I was out of the department. I really was not around. We had moved to Trumansburg, New York, which was ten or fifteen miles outside of Ithaca, where, coincidentally, my father's two brothers had a leather tannery. I came from a long line of tanners. We've talked about Gloversville before. Well, they went to Philadelphia, and then, because they had friends in Ithaca at the university, they opened this leather tannery. In Trumansburg one uncle was unmarried, and one uncle had no children, and he had built a house, and we lived upstairs. So we moved from Ithaca in June. I was really out of the department.

DeVorkin:

That was largely economics.

Rubin:

Yes. Bob was a graduate student, and he was finishing in June '51. I think I have to say in all honesty I had no idea where I was going next. I didn't know what was going to happen. When I mentioned feeling that this was just a master's thesis, one of the biggest problems in my life [during] those years was really attempting to answer the question to myself, "Will I ever really be an astronomer?" That was always in my consciousness. Bob had several job offers when he left.

He was a student of Peter Debye's in physical chemistry. I can't even remember where they [the job offers] all were because we later went somewhere else, and then he had more job offers, and I can't separate [them]. I think he had an offer from Oak Ridge. He may have had an offer from Bell Labs. If it wasn't then, he had it later. He had a couple. He chose the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Washington [D.C.] partly because he thought of all the places offered, I had a better chance of completing my education [here].[2]

DeVorkin:

I want you to think back. How did you talk this out with him? Because he didn't conjure this all up in his head. I can't imagine.

Rubin:

No, I talked to him all the time. I really did. He was my closest professional colleague, as well as my closest emotional supporter. I was never close to Martha Stahr in a social way. To the best of my ability and recollection, I don't even know where she lived. I never was there. I don't think we ever had a meal together. I came in and did my work and left. So probably the only person that really knew everything I was doing in that thesis was Bob. I mean, everything I did I discussed with him.

So he knew from the very beginning how enormously important it was to me to do astronomy, and he's an enormously kind person. He just would not have thought of doing anything that was not helpful to my career. We have talked recently about how we decided for me to come to Cornell, and we actually know that. I had to turn down Harvard, and we wrote our parents a letter, both sets of parents, telling them we wanted to get married.

That letter exists somewhere telling them in great detail that we had talked about Harvard, but Bob only had two or three more years to go for his PhD., and it looked like I could have a comfortable spot there, and we just decided to go to Cornell. So that one I sort of remember discussing really, I think, because of the letter that's around. I think he just always understood and always conducted his life so that it would not make it impossible for me to do things.

DeVorkin:

Certainly, if you'd gone to Oak Ridge, you would have been in the middle of nowhere.

Rubin:

That's right.

DeVorkin:

Bell Labs, it's hard to say.

Rubin:

Well, Princeton wouldn't accept women.

DeVorkin:

Of course. That's quite right. Rutgers — I don't know if anything was happening at Rutgers.

Rubin:

No, I have no idea. I think the others were all in that same category. I can tell you that a few years later when he had other offers: one was from Penn State, one was from Michigan State. He went to APL [Applied Physics Laboratory]. Surely. And part of the appeal there was knowing that [Ralph] Alpher and [Robert] Herman were there, and [George] Gamow was connected.

DeVorkin:

So you knew of them already?

Rubin:

Sure. We knew that. I had heard Ralph Alpher give at the Cosmos Club on Lafayette Square a talk on his thesis in 1947 or '48 when I was home from Vassar on some vacation. I was tied in through friends of my parents in Washington who were very influential in turning me into an astronomer. They would take me to meetings that they thought I would find interesting. They took me to hear Ralph's talk. So, yes, knowing that it was APL and those people were involved made it much more appealing to Bob.

DeVorkin:

We're talking, then, of the summer of 1951. APL was going through some very serious changes at this time.

Rubin:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

What was your husband's professional interest in going to that laboratory at that time?

Rubin:

Well, I guess you should ask him. He had very broad interests. He was trained as a physical chemist. Most of his life he worked as a physicist. He must have gone and given a talk and spoken to other people there. I think he was very impressed with Bob Herman, who was doing some molecular spectroscopy in those days. He and Ralph actually did some things on gas clouds colliding. It just must have seemed to him that he could use his talents.

DeVorkin:

James Van Allen had left by then.

Rubin:

Yes, I don't think [Bob] understood at all the politics of the place, but they were relatively disruptive years. In '55, many people left, including Bob.

DeVorkin:

I didn't know that. Okay. We can get to that.

Rubin:

Yes. So he stayed for four years. I think he had wonderful years, and during that time he was essentially able to do his own research — I mean, pick his own problems. Then things did continue to change, and this was the research lab. I don't know. Certainly, when he arrived, I think he was unaware of what was going on.

DeVorkin:

Did he have any appointment or status at Johns Hopkins?

Rubin:

No.

DeVorkin:

At that time, APL was in Silver Spring [Maryland]?

Rubin:

Yes, and it moved during his stay.

DeVorkin:

Right. Out to Laurel or Columbia or something like that. You then knew you were coming to Washington. Had you made decisions about continuing graduate work? I'd like to know how you made those decisions.

Rubin:

No, we did not. I mean, the decision we made was that I would not enter graduate school right away. It just would have been impossibly difficult.

DeVorkin:

You had one child less than a year old. I take it you were planning more?

Rubin:

That's right. We were planning another.

DeVorkin:

Did you ever discuss how many kids you wanted?

Rubin:

[Laughter] Only after four. I just wanted more. I adore children. Well, we wanted more; we discussed it. I missed not having babies around. I think the development of a little child is the most remarkable thing in this world. I mean, galaxies may be pretty remarkable, but to watch a child from zero to two is just incredible. Our children are further and further apart. Each one is further. I used to bring up the idea, and my sensible husband would remind me how busy I was and so forth, and soon thereafter the children were of marrying age. Then there were grandchildren, so that filled the bill.

DeVorkin:

I know of a few families who have two sets of children.

Rubin:

Because they wanted them?

DeVorkin:

Yes. Some friends of my parents. This never occurred to you?

Rubin:

No, I think not.

DeVorkin:

You were planning a family, a big family. Can I say that was your priority?

Rubin:

I don't know. It was my priority when we moved. My priority was to find a place to live. I really came from a very conventional, very loving Jewish family, and one had a nice home, and everything was done well. The idea of going off to school and not furnishing a house and so forth just seemed so complicated that I just took time and made a house.

DeVorkin:

Where was that?

Rubin:

It was in the Langley Park Apartments at University and New Hampshire Avenue in the suburbs. In fact, we only lived there two years, and then we bought a house just a few blocks away on Laguna Road off Riggs Road and University. They were very valuable years. I learned I was not meant to live in the suburbs, which was a very valuable lesson.

DeVorkin:

What does that mean, you were not? Because you'd been living in Ithaca.

Rubin:

Well, I did go back to school. I had nothing in common with my neighbors, who didn't understand why I couldn't come for coffee and do all the things that mothers of young children did in the suburbs.

DeVorkin:

But this was before you went back to school or after?

Rubin:

No, during. Well, let me back up then. I only stayed out of school for six months. It was the Astrophysical Journal that got me back to school because I wept every time the journal came into the house. I subscribed. It's hard to even talk about it now. They were probably the most unhappy six months of my life. They were not dreadfully unhappy; I've had a very happy life. My husband and I had been colleagues at Cornell. We took Bethe's quantum mechanics together. We sat in the library together. I didn't help him with his work at all, but he helped me with mine.

The six months up there when I was out of school, even the year while he was finishing, were not unhappy. We had a new baby, and I was living in the country. It was really very nice. But when we got to Washington, I realized that as much as we both adored this child, there was nothing in my background that had led me to expect that he would go off to work each day doing what he loved to do, and I would stay home with this lovely child. I really found it very, very hard. And it was he who insisted that I go back to school.

DeVorkin:

I take it over the dinner table at night, you would express your feelings.

Rubin:

I really remember sitting at the sandbox, reading ApJs. In fact, I can tell you a paper I read. I read "Radial Velocities and Masses of Double Galaxies," by Thornton Page Sp.J. 116,63, 1952.

DeVorkin:

Could your husband tell when an ApJ arrived by the change in your mood?

Rubin:

Well, I don't know, but he knew that I did not find that an acceptable way of life. It was just too tough. It was just too tough not doing astronomy.

DeVorkin:

To subscribe to the ApJ, you had to be nominated and be a member of the American Astronomical Society. I know it's true now. Was it true then?

Rubin:

I don't know.

DeVorkin:

Do you remember how you joined the Society?

Rubin:

No. Not at all. Don't know how long I've been a member. I do know that I was not when I gave this talk.

DeVorkin:

That's because of the situation with Shaw.

Rubin:

That's right. But this is just one year later. This is the fall of '51. That was the fall of '50 or the spring of '50, whenever this was being discussed. So it was a full year later. It never occurred to me until this moment that I could have told Shaw I would join the Society. I mean, that was one way of solving that problem.

DeVorkin:

Were you subscribing to any other journals? Sky and Telescope?

Rubin:

No. I was subscribing to the AJ by '55 because I got the Humason, Mayall and Sandage paper.[3] Those are the things you remember.

DeVorkin:

What forays into town did you make to make contact with astronomy again and to start making decisions about how to get back in? Who were your contacts? Or what kinds of things did you do?

Rubin:

Much of this I cannot remember. We had only one car. There was no transportation. My husband took the car to work most days. Every night there were phone calls from these very bright scientists, like Ralph Alpher and Bob Herman and others, trying to decide if someone could pick someone else up. I mean, I remember thinking that what I heard from them were always car arrangements.

So occasionally he would be able to leave the car. However, I did not drive in those years. We hadn't had a car in Ithaca. My father ultimately gave us an old car for when we moved to Trumansburg. We had very little money. Then I was pregnant. Then I had a baby. Then I was pregnant again. So there were years when, had I known how to drive, our lives would have been much easier.

DeVorkin:

How did you shop?

Rubin:

Probably on weekends.

DeVorkin:

With Robert?

Rubin:

With Bob, yes.

DeVorkin:

So you had a real suburban housewife existence.

Rubin:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

Did you have a television set?

Rubin:

No.

DeVorkin:

Did you read, other than the ApJ?

Rubin:

Oh, yes. We always read.

DeVorkin:

What did you read?

Rubin:

Oh, I read biographies mostly. I like biographies. I read novels. I've read different things at different times.

DeVorkin:

Did you buy astronomy books, textbooks, anything like that?

Rubin:

No. We had a fair number of books, but I don't really think we had the money to do that.

DeVorkin:

So the ApJ was your continuing connection.

Rubin:

That's correct. That's what kept me up to date. That's right.

DeVorkin:

Can you remember what it was in the ApJ, or what it was at all, that convinced you?

Rubin:

Well, it was Page's paper on "Binary Galaxies." It was the determination of the mass of the galaxies.

DeVorkin:

So this paper showed up.

Rubin:

Well, something else happened. Something very interesting happened. Within about a month of our arriving — I mentioned this at the Gamow Symposium — I got a phone call from Gamow, and that probably was the most important thing that happened. He had heard, I guess through Ralph Alpher, about my master's thesis. He wanted the details for a talk he was giving, this talk to which I could not go because it was at APL and spouses couldn't go. That started a dialogue by phone with Gamow. I cannot be sure of the first time I met him.

DeVorkin:

The spouses were unable to go. I just wanted to expand on that a little bit. APL was a secret or a military lab.

Rubin:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

It was definitely a military contract laboratory. Since he was really a consultant there, he was not a staff member. Could it have been that this was just not open to the public in any way?

Rubin:

No. There was a little lobby or a little room where you entered with a few little cubby holes with doors, almost like big telephone booths, like four feet by four feet square, and if you wanted to talk to someone and had no clearance and could not be permitted in, you could go sit in one of these places and talk to them. Then further along was the auditorium, and you didn't need clearance to go to the auditorium. There was also this rule that spouses could not go beyond the lobby.

I asked people about it. I was left with this impression. Silver Spring, where they were located, was a very heavy shopping area. So someone decided that either they didn't want to be bothered, or someone decided they shouldn't be bothered by their wives, so there was a separate rule about spouses. Working on my PhD. thesis, I got a lot of help from Francois Frankiel, who was a hydrodynamicist and a very outstanding mathematician. I met him once or twice in these little cubby holes, and then he finally decided he wasn't going to put up with that anymore, and he got me permission to go to the lab. So after that, I would see him in his office.

DeVorkin:

So there's clearly nothing personal about this; it was just a rule. Spouses tended to shop locally and might drop in, and this was being discouraged.

Rubin:

Yes. Well, it was more than discouraged. It was forbidden.

DeVorkin:

Yes. It's curious that the front of it was supposed to be a car dealership during the war.

Rubin:

Yes. That's what it looked like.

DeVorkin:

Well, this is how you got into contact with Gamow.

Rubin:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

But the next question is, here's Gamow, he has an appointment at G.W. [George Washington University]. Why did you end up at Georgetown [University]?

Rubin:

Because G.W. didn't offer a degree in astronomy.

DeVorkin:

And it had to be astronomy?

Rubin:

It had to be astronomy. It had to be astronomy for some reasons that were practical. I got a catalog from G.W., that much I remember. If I took a physics degree, I had to pass exams in six branches of physics. I really assumed that I could, but I didn't want to have to spend the time. I wanted to put my brain to astronomical problems, not to physical problems. I just didn't want to do that.

DeVorkin:

So in talking to Gamow, did you talk these things out?

Rubin:

No. No, the idea of writing a thesis under him didn't arise at all at that time.

DeVorkin:

But talking to him did what to you then?

Rubin:

Well, it sort of tied me in a little bit with what he was doing with cosmology. I cannot recall at all how I got to Georgetown.

DeVorkin:

But you must have applied.

Rubin:

I must have applied. I mean, I must have gotten a catalog, probably by mail. I probably spoke to Father Heyden [S.J.] at the observatory. The whole arrangement was sort of run out of his back pocket. You couldn't apply and not have spoken to him, so I must have gone and spoken to him, and he had to agree to accept me. When I started, I was pregnant with our second child. She was born September '52, so this was February of '52 when I started at Georgetown. This was just six months after we got to Washington.

DeVorkin:

Was there any family connection? You noted that your family, your mother and father knew Alpher, and they knew the scientific scene.

Rubin:

No, not my mother and father, friends of ours. No, there was no connection with Georgetown whatsoever.

DeVorkin:

No connection or interest in the Naval Observatory at that time?

Rubin:

On my part? No, I wanted to go to school.

DeVorkin:

So working wasn't an option.

Rubin:

No. Not at all.

DeVorkin:

So then somehow you contacted Father Heyden.

Rubin:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

Evidently, he accepted you.

Rubin:

Yes, he had to have accepted me, and I started in as a student.

DeVorkin:

In February of '52.

Rubin:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

And you had courses to take. You had tuition to pay. Was that a problem?

Rubin:

Yes. I applied to the AAUW [American Association of University Women] for a fellowship. I'm telling you all the bad things. And I was interviewed. Tuition was high. Yes, it was. It was a fair fraction of my husband's salary. I had an interview, and when I finished, the woman said to me, "We won't support you because you're going to finish whether we support you or not.

We have to support someone who wouldn't finish unless we supported them." Well, I mean, maybe that's better. Maybe you get two PhD.s for women that way. So we paid. Let me tell you how I got to school. You could talk to 2,000 astronomers, and you would never hear a story like this. All the [astronomy] classes at Georgetown were at night. I didn't know that when I applied.

DeVorkin:

This was by Father Heyden's design?

Rubin:

Yes, because Georgetown was the only place in the area that offered an astronomy degree. [The University of] Maryland had no astronomy program. In 1954, when I got my degree, I was at a party and met John Toll, who was chairman of the physics department at Maryland, and I asked him if he would ever consider teaching astronomy or having an astronomy department, and he said, "No. Why should I?" Here's how I went to class. Classes must have started at six o'clock at night.

DeVorkin:

By now you're in a house?

Rubin:

No. We moved in when Judy was born, so we were not living in the house. We moved in September of '52, but now we're at February of '52, so we're in the apartment.

DeVorkin:

At University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue.

Rubin:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

How did you get to Georgetown from your apartment?

Rubin:

My husband, at five o'clock, would leave his office in Silver Spring, and he would drive to, oh, somewhere like Georgia and Rittenhouse. He would drive two miles down into Washington, where my parents lived, and he would pick up my mother. She would get into the car with supper for her husband, maybe for her too, and he would drive her to our house. At 5:30, I would have fed the children, and she would get out of the car with her supper. I would get into the car with supper for Bob. He would drive me to Georgetown. Meanwhile, my father would leave his job in downtown Washington and come up to our house where he then would eat with my mother, using the dinner that she had brought, so I didn't have to cook dinner for them.

The classes were in the observatory, which had this little parking lot, a very pretty place, and Bob would sit in the car. I would go into class at six. I would have two classes from six to eight or nine. This was either two nights or three nights a week. I would go to class, and he would eat his dinner — his dinner, his sandwich — and then he would come in and sit in the library or something and work. But that was February '52, and I graduated February '54. By the time I graduated, I think I was driving although I will ask Bob tonight, and he may remember that I wasn't.

DeVorkin:

Why didn't you learn how to drive? Or it wouldn't have made a difference?

Rubin:

I tried to learn in Ithaca, and I failed my driver's test. Then I was pregnant. There were no seatbelts in those days. Bob didn't want me learning to drive when I was pregnant. I wasn't terribly anxious to learn to drive. I mean, I realized this was an enormous amount of effort on everybody's part, but at that point, in fact when I started at Georgetown in February, I was pregnant.

Judy was born September 15, and the second term started like a week later. I mean, there were certainly two terms, and I nursed all my kids. There was no way to talk about learning to drive then. Then we moved to the new house just about the time she was born. I did learn to drive while we lived in that house, and we moved in '55. So somewhere along that time.

DeVorkin:

That's already after your degree.

Rubin:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

But thinking about it, I can look at it through rose-colored glasses and say this gave your husband a chance to read in the library.

Rubin:

Sure.

DeVorkin:

It gave your parents continual access to your kids, but was there a down side?

Rubin:

No one complained, ever. Now my parents — let's see. This was '52. My parents were then in their fifties. My mother was born in 00, my father a couple of years before. He was still working. After a while they went to Florida for the winters and things like that. No, my mother did not work. She was a vigorous, enthusiastic volunteer.

She did all these things for all these people, and she said very directly that she would just as soon spend some of her energies helping me as doing these other things. When I decided to go back to school, probably then at that time, my only worries were about telling her. I still remember that, that she might think I wasn't being a very good mother. I wasn't sure how she would take the news that I wanted to go back to school. That was probably foolish on my part because she was one of my strongest supporters.

DeVorkin:

Were there any detractors?

Rubin:

No, not in the family. No. Father Heyden was enormously supporting. I mean, he knew what was going on. It probably was just two nights a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays. So you're right. My parents got to see the children. That's a luxury I don't have now. In fact, occasionally they entertained. They had friends come see them at our home. We would come home sometime, and there were friends there.

DeVorkin:

Was it a different world, this post-war world?

Rubin:

It was. Well, my world was very different. In retrospect, at the time I suffered from only one thing, and that was exhaustion. I shortly started writing a thesis. I have no idea, although I could recover that—I'm not sure I can even recover exactly when I got involved in a thesis, but it must have been while I was doing my course work, and I got through in two years at Georgetown.

DeVorkin:

Did Georgetown give you credit for your master's degree?

Rubin:

Yes. I had had an enormous amount of physics at Cornell, so I had no requirements but astronomy. At Georgetown, if you get a PhD., you have to take philosophy. I had taken a fair number of philosophy courses at Vassar. I had gotten very interested in the philosophy of science, so I satisfied all of those requirements. I never took a history course. I satisfied all my history courses by doing philosophy of science at Vassar. And Georgetown accepted that in lieu of their PhD. requirement for philosophy.

DeVorkin:

Did Father Heyden have something to do with all of this, smoothing the way?

Rubin:

Every bit of it. Every bit of it.

DeVorkin:

So he was everything that Shaw wasn't.

Rubin:

Absolutely. He collected around him strange people who needed special care, and he got his great pleasure out of making it work for us. There was a black astronomer there, Harvey Banks, who went to Howard [University]. He had a PhD., he knew about computers before any of us did, and he died very early. I went to his funeral while I was probably still at Georgetown. He had a few other people whose lifestyles were not conventional, and he just made it all work.

DeVorkin:

Anything about your Jewish background that made any difference to him at all?

Rubin:

No, none whatsoever. I think that's why he got me out of the philosophy. I think to have me study Jesuit philosophy at that time he probably thought was unnecessary, but it was never said. I did have the feeling, and I don't mean this unkindly because many of the Jesuit astronomers are still among my closest friends, I think I was much more acceptable because I was married and, clearly, had a very fine husband. I don't know how a single woman would have fit, but he might have made it work anyway.

DeVorkin:

Were there any single women in physics or astronomy?

Rubin:

Well, I never got out of the observatory. Except for receptions or something, I was never in the main building. I never saw a real classroom. There was a classroom in the observatory, and that's up on the hill. So I taught. When I stayed and taught the students, even the undergraduates came up there. So I was on the main campus for meeting deans, whatever rare occasions, and there were always visitors coming through, and there were receptions and so forth. I almost never even went to the library because we had the astronomy library in the observatory.

DeVorkin:

Father Heyden was the only astronomer there?

Rubin:

Well, no. There were several. Most of the courses were taught by area scientists.

DeVorkin:

Part time?

Rubin:

Just evening, yes. I studied radio astronomy with John Hagen from NRL [Naval Research Laboratory]. I studied spectroscopy with [Karl] Kiess from the Bureau of Standards. I even got connected with Charlotte Moore Sitterly through him. I did some little studies with her.

DeVorkin:

Yes, I was going to ask you about that later. That's like late in '59, '60, or something.

Rubin:

But it probably started — I probably met her in my student days. Father Heyden taught statistical astronomy and galactic astronomy, and then there were occasional Jesuits who were there. Father Thakakera was a solar astronomer. He also died quite young. Thakakera. T-H-A-K-A-K-E-R-A. I'm probably not spelling it right. He was involved with NASA. He got one of the earliest space determinations of the solar constant. He was a very interesting person. He may not have died that young, but he certainly was no more than fifty. He may have been in his forties.

DeVorkin:

Was Martin McCarthy around at all?

Rubin:

Martin McCarthy was around, but I never knew who he was for a long time. He was sort of the Jesuit who would be around for a while and then not around for a while. He got his degree from Georgetown before I did, so he must have had his degree by '52. It certainly was not '53. So he only was around at times.

DeVorkin:

You had a variety of courses from a lot of part-timers.

Rubin:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

People who generally were in one or another government lab.

Rubin:

That's right.

DeVorkin:

Bureau of Standards.

Rubin:

That's right.

DeVorkin:

Naval Research Lab.

Rubin:

That's right, but they knew what they were talking about.

DeVorkin:

But you were on a track where you were going to be an astronomer.

Rubin:

Finally.

DeVorkin:

Finally. Or did you feel that way?

Rubin:

I finally felt I was on the track to becoming an astronomer.

DeVorkin:

But there's the question of the thesis.

Rubin:

That's right. Karl Kiess suggested a thesis to me: faint lines in the solar spectrum. There was a Rowland grating and a heliostat, and there were lots of unidentified lines in the solar spectrum, especially in the red region. I hypersensitized plates. There was a great darkroom.

DeVorkin:

At Georgetown Observatory?

Rubin:

At Georgetown, yes. I played with the five-inch Ross lens. In fact, I did a fair amount of observing, surprisingly, for Washington. I mean, I had fun with the telescopes, and that, I think, was from Martin McCarthy. He was around.

DeVorkin:

But you were doing observational work?

Rubin:

Yes, I was.

DeVorkin:

There's not much record of it in your published records for some time here.

Rubin:

No. I was. Well, I loved it. What I was trying to do was [work with] limited equipment. There was a five-inch Ross lens; there were large gratings. I tried to get [stellar] radial velocities by doing what [Charles] Fehrenbach had done, passing the light from a whole field through a prism so you get the spectrum and then rotating the prism 180 degrees to get the opposite spectrum. So their displacement is the measured radial velocity. This observing with the five-inch was stellar. This is just observing I was doing at the same time.

DeVorkin:

They have a five-inch? There's a twelve-inch, too.

Rubin:

But they had a five-inch in a little shed behind the twelve-inch. These were Ross lenses. They were very good. A five-inch Ross telescope with an objective prism grating. It's so long since I've thought about these things; my thoughts are not coming out in an orderly fashion.

DeVorkin:

It's all right.

Rubin:

I had a lot of fun observing. I observed with Martin McCarthey. Father Heyden never observed, and no one else was around so I had the 5" to myself. But for Dr. Kiess I started observing with the Rowland grating and heliostat, searching for faint lines in the solar spectrum. I really must have done that for about three days before deciding I wanted to work on something else.

DeVorkin:

That must have been with National Bureau of Standards data.

Rubin:

No, I got my own. I observed the sun with red sensitized plates at enormously high dispersion and measured the plates and tried to identify the lines.

DeVorkin:

So Georgetown had that equipment.

Rubin:

Yes. It had a Rowland grating for very high dispersion. Kiess was working on Mars spectra in those days.

DeVorkin:

I'll be darned.

Rubin:

Yes. I mean, I liked the photographic work, the hypersensitizing was miserable but not "unfun," and I could even make it work, but I really was not interested in the scientific problem.

DeVorkin:

What was the scientific problem?

Rubin:

It was to identify the faint lines in the red region of the solar spectrum.

DeVorkin:

He wasn't going any farther than that?

Rubin:

No, that was the problem. If you're a spectroscopist, it's important to identify the unidentified lines.

DeVorkin:

That's right.

Rubin:

Kiess told me an interesting story that you may not know. It's off the subject, but I will tell you.

DeVorkin:

Please do.

Rubin:

It was about when Einstein visited the Bureau of Standards. He was taken to visit Kiess and Meggers sometime in '21. It was right after the war. That's what I know. Kiess was then hypersensitizing plates, some wet process, to observe toward the red and identified lines in the solar spectrum. But it was the red plates that were important. Einstein was brought to the door and asked if he would like to meet Dr. Kiess and see his infrared plates or something, and Einstein said, "No, that's war work."

DeVorkin:

That's war work?

Rubin:

So there must have been infrared photography during the war. I know no more than that, but I've never forgotten the story.

DeVorkin:

That's a new story, and a very interesting one.

Rubin:

I hoped you would be interested. They were all very interesting people. It was an interesting education. Again, incredibly unconventional.

DeVorkin:

Did you meet Meggers?

Rubin:

Yes, at the Bureau, but not much. I have lots of stories. I learned how to measure spectra. It was Kiess who told me this story. George Harrison at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] had invented some way of photographing so you could set on a line, and there was a camera that photographed the dial so you didn't have to write the measure down, and Megger said, "You can't do spectroscopy if you don't write the numbers down yourself."

DeVorkin:

This is an important period in laboratory spectroscopy because it was dying. But here you are, a student. They're trying to get you interested.

Rubin:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

What else? Did they hold out anything that would induce you to be interested?

Rubin:

No. I mean, Kiess was working on Mars and the planets although no one was interested in planets in those days. He was really a lone voice. I think I would have found it more interesting than faint lines in the solar spectrum, but he was doing that and wasn't going to offer it to me. I cannot tell you how I got from that step to Gamow.

I clearly made up my mind that I wasn't interested in doing that. I undoubtedly told Father Heyden. He was very easy to talk to. I may have even asked him. I know that ultimately I did go ask him if it could be arranged that I write a thesis under George Gamow. Now, whether I had already contacted Gamow and we had said anything, I don't know.

DeVorkin:

Any APL connection, conceivably?

Rubin:

I don't think I ever saw Gamow at APL.

DeVorkin:

Were you aware of what he was doing at APL?

Rubin:

No.

DeVorkin:

Did your husband ever talk about it?

Rubin:

No. I'm not aware 'til this day what he was doing at APL. No. I'll go home and ask Bob.

DeVorkin:

Just from the standpoint of that connection, plus the possible connection with Tuve — Merle Tuve.

Rubin:

No, I didn't know Tuve at that time. I didn't even know DTM [Department of Terrestrial Magnetism] existed. Let me tell you something funny. I didn't know anything west of Rock Creek Park existed. Don't laugh. I grew up near Sixteenth Street, lived at Fifth and Tuckerman. I didn't know people that lived over on this side of the park. I didn't know anything about this part of the city.

DeVorkin:

But you were going to Georgetown.

Rubin:

Yes, but that was Georgetown. We were coming from New Hampshire Avenue. I mean, I don't know how we got there, now that you ask the question.

DeVorkin:

There's no easy way today.

Rubin:

No. I don't know how or when.

DeVorkin:

But you had no contact with DTM.

Rubin:

I had no contact with DTM until I contacted — I think until this point — I'm going to ask Bob, but I don't think he'll remember. I think I must have talked to Gamow on the phone, but this is all reconstructed in my mind, and told him I would be interested in writing a thesis under him if that could be arranged. He told me to meet him at the DTM Library. So the first time I — oh, in fact, now I can tell you. It was spring of '52. I was pregnant. I was wearing a maternity dress when I walked into the DTM Library. The old library that you were talking about. That was my appointment to meet Gamow. Over the years I have wondered how I got there, and I can't answer the question. It was during the day. My mother probably came to watch the children. I never had any help 'til I got my degree, except from my parents and Bob. Bob probably took time off and drove me.

DeVorkin:

Can you remember the interview and how it went?

Rubin:

No, I can only remember what I was wearing. Isn't that awful? I can tell you what I was wearing. I was wearing a brown and white seersucker, striped, two-piece dress, a skirt and a little jacket, leant to me by Louise Alpher. I remember walking through the corridor lined with bookshelves, and Gamow was in there. I do not have a memory of anything beyond that. I don't know how the problem was arrived at.

DeVorkin:

Just the fact that you were wearing the dress given to you by Louise Alpher makes a connection in my mind that Louise Alpher could have known that you were coming.

Rubin:

Louise Alpher was a very close friend of mine by then, and she just handed me a whole maternity wardrobe.

DeVorkin:

But could this have been an interview that the families all knew that you were having?

Rubin:

No, I don't think so. I don't think so. The clothes were sort of independent.

DeVorkin:

No connection there.

Rubin:

It was the spring of '52, and the next time I saw Gamow was late April in '52, and I was wearing the same dress! He invited me to come to the National Academy of Sciences meeting. That certainly was the first time I ever walked into that building. I stayed for lunch, and I heard whatever talks were given. That was delightful.

I remember how excited I was about that. Certainly what I do remember — and this certainly is true, but I don't know when it arose — is that his discussion of the thesis was solely in terms of scale length: "Is there a scale length in the distribution of galaxies?" That's what he wanted the answer to. Everything else I had to imagine myself.

DeVorkin:

In his idea, a scale length means he's looking for clumpiness?

Rubin:

That's right. Is there some preferred distribution of galaxies? Yes.

DeVorkin:

So you could have talked about that at that meeting or at subsequent meetings?

Rubin:

We probably talked about it at the very first. By 1953– and I learned this in preparing this Gamow paper[4] — he had the Shane-Wirtanen counts. They published pieces of them later in 1953. So he already was curious.

DeVorkin:

Lead me through the events of the next year.

Rubin:

Well, I would meet him periodically here in the library or in his house in Chevy Chase [Maryland]. I must have been driving by then. It was a fancy house in a real wooded area. So I must have met him-well, during the academic year it could have been as often as once a month. I guess I must have seen him about that often, or every six weeks. It was sort of pleasant. I would tell him what I was doing, and he would tell me what he was doing. I remember one or two meetings in his house that were embarrassing to me. I guess he was in the process of breaking up with his wife.

His behavior embarrassed me on various occasions. He would always accuse her of something; he would always scream to her. I don't think I ever saw her. I didn't know if she was even in the house, but he assumed she was and would be screaming to her in another part of the house: why had she gone through his papers, and why had she taken these papers, and why couldn't he find what he wanted, and so forth. I remember those kinds of episodes while I don't remember what we were talking about. Probably through Father Heyden again I had gotten the Harvard galaxy counts, which, in fact, were published, but maybe I got others.

DeVorkin:

You'd gotten some stuff just before publication. I know that. You acknowledge Gamow suggesting the problem and working through it with you. Frenkiel —

Rubin:

Yes, Frenkiel. He was the guy I saw at APL.

DeVorkin:

You acknowledged his help in the theory of turbulence and how to treat the data.

Rubin:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

You also thanked Father Heyden and Shapley for interest and evidently for data as well.

Rubin:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

And Walter Baade for discussions of magnitude errors.

Rubin:

That's right. The magnitude error part was embarrassing. I took the Harvard galaxy counts, and you know they should go according to some law.

DeVorkin:

The Harvard and the Mount Wilson magnitude systems never agreed.

Rubin:

Yes, but the Harvard magnitudes were internally inconsistent, and of course, I stumbled upon it, and I remember a letter from Shapley. I met Shapley because he came to Georgetown a couple of times and gave talks. I have a letter, or had a letter, in which he sort of says, "I hear you think there's an error in the Harvard galaxy counts." Now, that probably hurt me. You know, he was a great man, and I didn't know whether what I was doing was exactly right. He asked me for details.

Then it was probably at the Michigan summer school in 1953 that I spent certainly an afternoon or two, long afternoons, four or five hours, in either Gamow or Baade's room in the Michigan Inn, the Student Union on campus. We[Gamow and Baade and I] spent a couple of long afternoons talking, and we must have, among other things, talked about the magnitude error.

DeVorkin:

So you were getting to know these people.

Rubin:

Yes. Well, the Michigan summer school was the summer that I really got to meet astronomers, probably the first summer.

DeVorkin:

Is there anything else we should cover up to that, other than how you got to the Michigan summer school? Because as I recall from your talk, it wasn't too easy.

Rubin:

It wasn't too hard. No, I think not. Nothing stands out. Then the summer school came up. Gamow was speaking. I applied to NSF [National Science Foundation] for whatever it was. Getting the money sort of made you a student in the summer school. And I was denied. I have no idea why. They just said no. I don't now have a letter. It was for four weeks. I don't even know how I would have gone, really, in retrospect. Maybe I would have just left Bob. Judy was a year, so the children were one and three. But I got this letter telling me, "no, " I hadn't been accepted.

Then my parents offered to stay with the children for two weeks, so we decided to go anyway. I wrote Leo Goldberg, and I do remember that he wrote back and said, "Fine." Then I remember I even got a second letter from him telling me that they had interchanged some people's lectures, the program had changed, and he wanted to make sure that I knew that so that I wouldn't pick two weeks and then be disappointed. I thought that was really very nice of him.

DeVorkin:

Because the session went from June 29th to July 24th, and some of the lectures were only a day or two within that. I have here some of the lectures.

Rubin:

I have a program, but I can't now find my lecture notes. I thought there were lecture notes.

DeVorkin:

This is quite a few of them.

Rubin:

I have a letter from Gamow asking me, when he was at Berkeley, if I would send him a few of mine because he couldn't find his. [Laughter] Of course.

DeVorkin:

These are the mimeographed notes that were sent out.

Rubin:

No, I don't think [Gerard] Kuiper was there when I was there.

DeVorkin:

But it was quite a few people.

Rubin:

Yes, it was really wonderful.

DeVorkin:

Gamow lectured, Baade lectured, Kuiper did lecture in some important areas. [Edwin] Salpeter?

Rubin:

Yes, I was there, I think, when he was there.

DeVorkin:

[Don] Osterbrock.

Rubin:

Osterbrock was a student.

DeVorkin:

Yes, but he was also speaking. There's one in there by him, and also [Allan] Sandage.

Rubin:

Sandage I remember. Batchelor (from Australia) spoke. That's about all. Geoffrey Keller spoke. I met Osterbrock and his wife; I met Nancy Roman; I met Sandage; I met the Burbidges; I met Owen Gingerich; I met Al and Nancy Boggess.

DeVorkin:

Had you gone to any AAS meetings subsequent to the Haverford meeting?

Rubin:

No, no.

DeVorkin:

So this was your second meeting of astronomers.

Rubin:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

What kind of contrast did you get there?

Rubin:

Well, I don't know. One of these stories Owen Gingerich published. Again, it was unconventional. The male students all lived in a fraternity house with Baade. They did an enormous amount of their learning in the evenings in this house. Women students and married people couldn't stay there, so Bob and I rented a room sort of across the street in somebody's house. It was very hot. The room was very hot. The room where we met was very hot.

At the first break, I went up to get some lemonade and was approached by someone who is since a dear friend, and she said that she was sorry inasmuch as we hadn't paid, we couldn't have lemonade. [Laughter] I don't think I earlier noticed the similarity to Brouwer's saying, "We can't call this (my Haverford AAS paper) `the rotation of the universe'", but there always seemed to be things like that.

So we must have paid, and after that we could drink lemonade. Then a lot of interesting things were going on that we kept hearing about. Gamow made it very nice for me. As I said, he arranged one or two long afternoons to talk to Baade. And we had a couple of long afternoons talking about galaxies, talking about stars.

DeVorkin:

There is a written recollection that I have here. I think this came from Owen Gingerich, something I read of Owen's. "Vera Rubin, a student of Gamow, she remembers long conversations between Gamow and Baade, regarding stellar populations in the HR [Hertzsprung-Russell] diagram at the time."

Rubin:

Yes, and some of them probably were during these afternoons. I am confused, myself. A lot of the discussions were about the HR diagram. Sandage was there and had just done his thesis. He had driven across the country with Baade. He had lots of HR diagrams to show, and my recollection is the following: that no one understood why stars turned off the main sequence at different times.

I thought the story went that after the meeting Gamow wrote Baade a postcard saying, "Tell me where the stars leave the main sequence, and I will tell you the age of the cluster." When you read Baade's book, that story comes in, but in a different way. I haven't looked at the book for a long time, and so if you really want to check, you should go look at the book.

DeVorkin:

This is the 1958 book?

Rubin:

Yes, the book that was published by Harvard.[5] In it, I got the impression reading it, that Baade attributes the postcard from Gamow, but from before the summer school. But my recollection is that at the summer school no one knew it.

DeVorkin:

No one knew it, or no one really —

Rubin:

Believed it?

DeVorkin:

— believed it. There wasn't a consensus.

Rubin:

Maybe that's it.

DeVorkin:

Gamow had been computing turnoff ages since 1939, and he'd been having no end of arguments with Chandrasekhar.

Rubin:

That's correct. I guess I knew that.

DeVorkin:

What was going on here? Gamow was intuitively sure that this is the way shell burning had to work, but the boundary conditions never worked out right for him.

Rubin:

I never had heard that, that he had been doing that, or so early.

DeVorkin:

Yes. They argued for five, ten years, over boundary conditions.

Rubin:

Well, I believe you because I know that from Baade's book. I never really had an outstanding course on stars at Georgetown.

DeVorkin:

There was really no one to give it.

Rubin:

That's right. There were galaxies. Father Heyden had trained at Harvard, probably around wartime. He wasn't that far past it, and his galaxy knowledge was pretty good. I really did not have a good course in stars.

DeVorkin:

Well, modern stellar structure.

Rubin:

Yes. So I may have just misunderstood what was being discussed. Maybe there just was a lot of confusion.

DeVorkin:

It was a lot of confusion.

DeVorkin:

The '53 summer school seemed to be a real turning point.

Rubin:

It was great. For me it was really great, and I think for everyone who was there. Most of the astronomers I know well today I met there for the first time. I was exposed to all kinds of science that I really didn't hear otherwise. It was just a very nice group.

DeVorkin:

What would you say about the way both Baade and Gamow were as ringleaders? At the school, generally.

Rubin:

Gamow was really phenomenal. I often think he doesn't really get the credit he deserved. I think his intuition was just unbelievable. But he was also fairly unconventional. He did not do the nitty-gritty detailed work in most cases. In some sense he was very inspirational, just seeing a mind work like that.

DeVorkin:

Was he generous?

Rubin:

Well, he was to me. I didn't really know him that well. Sometimes, I think, even at this Gamow Symposium, that people assume I knew him better than I did because I was his student. But I saw him, as I said, maybe once a month, so I must have seen him twenty-five times in my life. They were often under slightly formal circumstances although he came to our house, and we saw him other places. I saw him at a relativistic astrophysics meeting late in his life in New York. We saw him in Boulder when we spent a summer there. I rarely saw him with other people except at the meetings. He was very generous to me.

DeVorkin:

Baade seemed to be a kind of person who drew people to him.

Rubin:

I didn't know Baade as well at all. I saw him at the Michigan meeting. I saw him at an AAS meeting in '55 at Princeton, which was my second meeting, and he was very nice then and very generous and very, very welcoming.

DeVorkin:

How should we move through your thesis of the fluctuations in space distribution?

Rubin:

Well, quickly.

DeVorkin:

Okay. It was suggested by Gamow.

Rubin:

Yes, the subject arose from a question by Gamow. The mathematical formalism I worked out. Well, similar mathematical treatments were being done a little bit in the astronomical community at that time. There are gross misprints in the published thesis, which disturbed me greatly, in the Proceedings of the NAS [National Academy of Sciences].[6]

DeVorkin:

There are a few corrections that were changed?

Rubin:

It's not that they were changed. They put all the exponents up in the line above instead of as exponents. Gamow wanted me to publish it in the NAS. He told me it would be cheaper.

DeVorkin:

Page charges and all of that.

Rubin:

Yes. I knew he and Chandra were not friends. Chandra was then the editor of the ApJ. I said I would like it in the ApJ, and I submitted it, and it was returned by Chandra saying that he had a student working on the same problem, and he thought I should wait until his student was done. I have a copy of that letter. The student was Nelson Limber.

DeVorkin:

Yes, you reference Limber in here.

Rubin:

Yes. He may have even sent me a copy of his paper before publication or something.

DeVorkin:

Yes, "In a recent paper, Limber has developed the equations which can be employed," so on and so forth.

Rubin:

Okay.

DeVorkin:

What does that mean?

Rubin:

Well, it means I wrote to Gamow and said, "Let's publish it in the NAS," and he sent me back a postcard saying, "I told you so."

DeVorkin:

What does that tell you about, again, the Society of Astronomy?

Rubin:

Well, I didn't tell you something about the Michigan school. I don't want to make this all bad because the Michigan school was phenomenal, but I do remember knocking on the door of one of the Michigan astronomers not related to the school, someone I would have liked to have talked to. I knocked on his door and asked him if he had time to talk, and he said no. So I left.

DeVorkin:

That wasn't Goldberg?

Rubin:

No, that wasn't Goldberg. No, Goldberg was around at the school. In fact, that must have been the first time I met Goldberg.

DeVorkin:

Can you tell me who it was, or can I guess?

Rubin:

No, I could tell you, but does it matter? Would you rather have the person's name than not?

DeVorkin:

If it was someone like Dean [B.] McLaughlin, for instance, it means something about the structure of the Society itself.

Rubin:

It was Dean McLaughlin. I don't know what it means. What does that mean?

DeVorkin:

Well, I'm trying to understand the Society as a social group.

Rubin:

Okay.

DeVorkin:

He was very much in the Society.

Rubin:

It was he. I can't tell you at this time what in the world I wanted to talk to him about.

DeVorkin:

He did all the manpower surveys. He was the secretary of the Society for many years.

Rubin:

It was he.

DeVorkin:

He was a member of the old-boy group. You were a product of people who were mavericks. But Gamow certainly was a maverick.

Rubin:

Yet Gamow was invited by Goldberg to this summer school.

DeVorkin:

Gamow could not be denied. He could not be denied. But see what the relationship between Gamow and Chandra was. Schwarzschild said to me that he told his students, "Do not go into stellar structure theory in the forties while Gamow and Chandrasekhar are warring about it, because there's no way you'll get out alive." He told that to Geoffrey Keller.

Rubin:

My goodness.

DeVorkin:

Now, Keller went in anyway and he survived, but it was difficult. One or the other would be after you. So I'm looking and trying to understand the smallness of the community: who was in, who was out.

Rubin:

I was aware of the fact that Gamow was out, but that was no problem to me at all. I didn't understand the implications, I think. But I do have these sentences on paper about his problems with Chandra, that Chandra would never take the paper.

DeVorkin:

So you worked on the thesis. You depended upon different people for advice. You give your husband credit for knowing more about the thesis, working through every part of the thesis with you.

Rubin:

Yes. That's true.

DeVorkin:

"With whom all phases of this work have been discussed."

Rubin:

It's true.

DeVorkin:

How did your husband actually work with you on this?

Rubin:

Well, I would tell him what I was doing and what the problem was, sort of. Once I had the counts in hand in some believable form, and once I had the equations in closed form, essentially, most of the work on the thesis meant sitting in front of an electric calculator and calculating. My recollection is that the long part, and maybe the hard part, was just doing the arithmetic and doing it right. So the discussions with Bob were certainly, in the early stages, just figuring out what to do and how to do it.

DeVorkin:

Did you really need his mathematical abilities?

Rubin:

No. I really needed just general discussions more on how to approach the problem. But I'm sure I asked him to check integrations and messy mathematical parts.

DeVorkin:

In a way a seminar colleague would.

Rubin:

Yes. The way I talk to colleagues here, just straightening out your ideas.

DeVorkin:

He would not be asking you or testing on the basis of knowledge in astrophysics. What was his value?

Rubin:

Well, mostly as sort of a sounding board, someone to talk to. I didn't have Gamow to talk to. I didn't have anybody else to talk to, so it was really someone to give my thoughts to in some diffuse fashion.

DeVorkin:

Once you were finished with the course requirements, did you do most of this work at home?

Rubin:

I did all of the thesis work at home because my course requirements, whatever they were, were just these two nights a week. So I did virtually all of the thesis work at home, most of it like 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., after the kids went to sleep. I had to learn German. I taught myself German. I had to pass two languages.

DeVorkin:

For the exam.

Rubin:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

I didn't think for the data or anything.

Rubin:

No, no. There was a textbook on stellar astronomy, a big thick German textbook, and I held it while I pushed the baby carriage. French, I knew. It was a statistical astronomer whose name I forgot.

DeVorkin:

How would you describe your family life revolving around the research at this time? Your kids are toddlers.

Rubin:

My kids are one and three. They both took a nap. I would only let them nap at the same time. That was important to me because I could get in an hour or two of work. I spent the days with the kids. I would work while they napped. I would work as soon as supper was over. I cooked the meals.

DeVorkin:

Did Bob help out with the meals at all or with the dishes?

Rubin:

He never cooked. He certainly helped with the dishes. He helped with the wash. He helped with the children. He built a porch. It was during that time that I learned I wasn't meant to live in the suburbs because I didn't have free evenings, and I didn't want to talk to my neighbors while the kids were sleeping because I wanted to be working. My house always had papers scattered about. My work was scattered all over.

DeVorkin:

Was there time out for the kids?

Rubin:

Well, I spent the days with the kids. I really did.

DeVorkin:

What did you do? Anything fun?

Rubin:

Well, I took them to the playground. I was a real mother.

DeVorkin:

But a mother who had very strong personal interests.

Rubin:

Oh, yes. And I was very tired when I got into bed at night, really tired.

DeVorkin:

I found the citations to your thesis, and again, J. Neyman was one of the first. Then P.M. Campbell, Totsuji, a Japanese fellow.

Rubin:

Oh, yes. Later was [Jim] Peebles.

DeVorkin:

Later citations came from Peebles, De Vaucouleurs, S.M. Fall —

Rubin:

Mike Fall, probably.

DeVorkin:

Mike Fall, V.J.T. Jones — And then in the 1980 to '85 range, you're still being cited, this paper's still being cited, and it picks up.

Rubin:

Well, the history of it is the — tell me the Japanese name. That's terrible that I know him as a Japanese, but I don't know his name.

DeVorkin:

Totsuji.

Rubin:

I should know that. Around '69.

DeVorkin:

Yes.

Rubin:

He was the one that really did it right for the first time, and then Jim Peebles did it half a dozen years later, and I've forgotten the history. I guess Jim knew that Totsuji had done it. Well, again, it waited for better data.

DeVorkin:

How did you feel, and how was it received? Obviously Chandra wouldn't publish it.

Rubin:

Let me tell you something funny.

DeVorkin:

Then let's get back to Neyman, too.

Rubin:

Yes. Okay. Six months ago, Bob went up to the attic to look for something and found this note from Chandra telling me he wouldn't take the paper because he had a student working on a similar problem. I did not remember that. I knew it had been rejected, but I absolutely didn't remember that. So some of these things just have passed. The story is not about Neyman. It's with Elizabeth Scott.

They were doing the same kind of thing. My last term at Georgetown — so this would have been the spring term in '54 — Gamow was at Berkeley, so he didn't come to my final orals, but that's all right. He wrote me saying Neyman and Scott were — well, this is not part of the story, really — they didn't believe what I had done. Then they even published papers saying it all depended on the size of the cell I used or something. I don't remember the problem. I think it is a very difficult problem. But I didn't know how to do it any better, and it may not have worked any better. Elizabeth Scott, probably in '53 or '54, came to Washington for a Statistical Society meeting at the Shoreham Hotel.

I don't know how I learned that. I either saw a program or something. So I made complicated arrangements, which again I don't remember, to go down to the hotel that morning and hear her talk. It was on the same subject. I went up to her afterwards and introduced myself, and I think she must have known my name, knew that I was working on this. I went up to her and asked her if she had time to talk. She said "no." So I went home. In retrospect I sort of thought, well, I should have let her know I was coming, etc. We became very close friends later. I spent a term at Berkeley, and she was nicer to me than anyone else. I mean, I really did get to like her very much.

DeVorkin:

She didn't give you an excuse? She had an appointment?

Rubin:

No, she didn't say anything. She just said "no." And it was not an easy thing for me to do. In a way, it was worse than the McLaughlin rebuff. It's funny these things you remember — because I really wanted to talk to her about the work. At least now I remember. I don't know what I wanted to talk to him about, so it doesn't make much difference, but I remember how disappointed I was that I didn't have a chance to talk to her about it. I don't know whether she ever remembered that later.

DeVorkin:

Were you feeling still out of astronomy at this point?

Rubin:

Yes. It took me a long time. My husband heard my question often, "Will I ever really be an astronomer?" First I thought when I'd have a PhD., I would. Then even after I had my PhD., I wondered if I would.

DeVorkin:

What was your speculation?

Rubin:

You mean what did I think?

DeVorkin:

What did you think was going on?

Rubin:

I kept myself cheerful — which I think was my native [reaction] — by really telling myself that I was just doing something that very few people had done. That really kept me going. I recognized that I was doing something complicated.

DeVorkin:

You were talking about the existence of clusters of galaxies, and you were trying to figure out if galaxies clustered. If there's a superclustering going on, what is the scale of this clustering?

Rubin:

That's correct. And I found a nice little curve, and I got a scale length which is reasonable.

DeVorkin:

Right. But did it agree or run in the face of conventional wisdom at the time? Because I remember the arguments a few years later between [George] Abell and De Vaucouleurs.

Rubin:

Yes.

DeVorkin:

These were very contentious times.

Rubin:

And [Fritz] Zwicky.

DeVorkin:

But were you aware that you were in such a hot field?

Rubin:

Probably not. I heard Zwicky give a talk. It must have been at the 1961 Clusters of Galaxies Symposium in Santa Barbara. That was my first IAU. I didn't go to the IAU, but I went to the Santa Barbara meeting. The meeting was in Santa Barbara, and the IAU was in Berkeley. Again, I had a one-year-old child. I had four kids, so my in-laws — we were spending the summer in Boulder — came [and took care of them]. I can tell you a story about every meeting I ever went to more than you want to know.

Zwicky gave an evening talk. He wasn't on the program, as I now remember it, but he wanted to say things about clusters. By that meeting, I understood what — so by '60 or '61, which is when I finished having children — I'm jumping ahead. In 1961, I went to the Nyenroda Summer School. Jan Oort ran a NATO Summer School, N-U-F-F-I-C, a Netherlands University Research [body]. It was a three-week summer school that was possibly the most important thing I ever attended in the sense that it really got me back into extragalactic astronomy.

It was on the Milky Way, structure and evolution of the galaxy. I wrote a report of it for Physics Today.[7] It all came up informally because someone passed through Georgetown, a Dutch Jesuit, and mentioned the meeting, and I decided to go, and Father Heyden supported me. Baade was supposed to have been one of the speakers but died that spring. The Burbidges spoke, Oort spoke, Westerhaut spoke, there was some stellar astronomy, a French stellar astronomer — Couderc. It was for graduate students and postgraduates.

DeVorkin:

This is a NATO conference?

Rubin:

It was NATO and this NUFFIC organization. It was a summer school.

DeVorkin:

I'll have to read that paper.

Rubin:

Yes. It's pretty good. Then I began to understand what the field was doing and what the people were doing. I think I was so glad to be doing astronomy I didn't care what people said about it. It was much like the talk. For me the important thing was to have done it and to have done it about as best as I could and not be ashamed of it. My relations with Chandra were [not cordial]; I never said hello to the man. He rejected all my first few papers. In '60 — no, I don't know when — I did some research for Georgetown, when I was working there, on limb darkening on the sun.

DeVorkin:

Yes, I have that here.

Rubin:

He returned that paper to me and told me he would not look at it until I retyped it and put zeroes in front of all the decimal points. I had typed it. It was not embarrassingly typed. I don't send out work that's embarrassingly typed, but I had typed it myself. I thought it was adequate. So I did everything he asked for, and I sent it back, and he took it.[8]

Rubin:

I had gone to talk to Watts at the Naval Observatory, and I had gotten the lunar limb at the time of the eclipse so I could do things very exactly, I think the first time that had been done, and all the references to that paper afterwards always said, when they were comparing all kinds of eclipses, always said that they couldn't include my paper because I hadn't used the eclipse moon. There was a diameter of the moon which is some average diameter called the eclipse diameter, and because I had done it this exact way, most authors following couldn't use that paper, which always, I thought, was very amusing.

DeVorkin:

Yes, it reveals something about how shared practices are very important. But the sense I'm getting here is, yes, galaxies. Extragalactic research has been your very, very strong interest. We have to cover the period '55 to '60, this watershed period, in the year '60 being watershed. But during that interim, you were doing a number of things. As we mentioned, you were collaborating with Kiess and Sitterly on line spectra; you were doing the eclipse work. You didn't seem to be focusing on galactic research.

Rubin:

No, it's true. I was being paid by research grant money out of Georgetown, part of it on the solar eclipse observations. I recognized that, that I wasn't doing what I'd like to be doing, but I was raising children, and I was sort of hanging in there, and that was really enough for me, and I recognized it in those days. I was keeping up with the literature to a degree that I have never since. I read everything that came out. So I was learning. I have personally felt it. I think I've said to a lot of people, especially students, that I sort of had ten years to be dumb. It was a rather valuable time. I taught, and I learned by teaching. It was a comfortable time.

DeVorkin:

As you went from assistant professor — let's see, what were your positions?

Rubin:

Well, it was research and then assistant professor.

DeVorkin:

Research to assistant professor at Georgetown, '55 to '64. This was largely on soft money? ONR?

Rubin:

It certainly was in the beginning. Once I became an assistant professor, it was a real faculty position.

DeVorkin:

What we should be doing then, next time, is filling in those years.

Rubin:

Okay, and there's not an awful lot to be said.

DeVorkin:

I then want to get into the question of how you entered, finally in the 1960s, your life work. Just as the final question I want to ask you is, at any time did you think you were doing cosmology in the fifties with the density fluctuation, anything like that?

Rubin:

No.

DeVorkin:

Did you classify it in any way in your mind?

Rubin:

No, it was just astronomy. It wasn't even astrophysics. I never understood what people meant by astrophysics. I still don't, to some degree.

DeVorkin:

Where's the fuzziness? Why is the barrier present?

Rubin:

I don't know. I have accepted an invitation to the Princeton Cosmology meeting on the last day to give one of the summaries. Wilczek will give a particle physicist's view, Jerry Ostriker will give an astrophysicist's view, and Vera Rubin will give an astronomer's view. I think I have to learn before I do that, I mean, by astronomer whether they mean observer.

DeVorkin:

This is wrapped up in a very important question to me, and that is, when does a certain type of science or a certain type of practice become legitimate? We've been talking so far about a period in your life when you've been doing work that's satisfied you, but it wasn't establishing you in any one way or another.

I have to work over in my mind, and I hope you will, too, for our next meeting, why that is so, and could it have been that in this area where you have people like Zwicky, de Vaucouleurs, Gamow, dealing with basically numerical data, some of which better than others, but simply positions and distances which were certainly very questionable. What was the legitimacy of the whole field in which they were working?

The context for this is that so many physicists today say that cosmology did not become legitimate until 1965 and argue that point based on Penzios and Wilson's work. They don't give any credence to source counts, to these earlier either visual or radio source counts. I'm trying to straighten that out in my mind.

Rubin:

Okay. No, I never thought of it as cosmology.

DeVorkin:

Okay. Was there a point in time?

Rubin:

Well, maybe the day before the Gamow meeting when I had to face all this, it began to look to me like cosmology.

DeVorkin:

Before the Gamow meeting?

Rubin:

Yes, a few weeks ago. I never considered it cosmology, personally. I mean, cosmology was something that people did that I couldn't understand.

DeVorkin:

Why don't we end here and work on that thought next time.

[1]H. D. Curtis "The Nebulae," Chapter 6. Handbuch der Astropysik V pt. 2 Springer, 1933.

[2]He went first to APL, see pg. 30.

[3]Humason, Mayall and Sandage 1956 AJ 61, 97.

[4]Gamow Symposium. GWU, April 1996.

[5]W. Baade Evolution of Stars and Galaxies Harvard, 1963 Ed. by C.P. Gaposehkin.

[6]V.C. Rubin, "Fluctuations in the Space Distribution of Galaxies," Proc. NAS 40:541–549. 1954.

[7]V.C. Rubin, " Structure and Evolution of the Galactic System," Physics Today 13:32–35. 1960.

[8]V.C. Rubin "Solar Limb Darkening determined from Eclipse Observations," ApJ 129:812–825. 1959.

Session I | Session II