Vera Rubin on Maria
Mitchell and why she
became an astronomer.
could see the stars during the night in Washington in the early forties. So I went downtown on a bus and got a linoleum tube, which I brought home and
turned into a little telescope. I tried to take some pictures, but none of it worked because the telescope didn't track.
Other than this influence from your father, who was an electrical engineer, do you remember any books that you read that had an impact on you at this
I read a lot of books, such as [James] Jeans's book, The Universe Around Us
and Eddington's early books.
But I was already hooked. It really came
from the sky. In the late 1930's, I remember, there was an alignment of five planets. That impressed me. I didn't realize at that time how likely such a thing
was. Then there were several auroral displays. It was those things that really [captured my interest]. It was the visual experience more than what I read in
Did you read anything about cosmology or the universe as a whole at this time?
Well, the Jeans's books. His books had these wonderful things — some things that I still remember. In retrospect, the things that impressed me most were
the very, very far-out things — you know, ideas about whether, when you look in one direction, you can see light from stars in other directions.
That's going around universe?
Going around, that's right. It was those kinds of concepts that really fascinated me more than the everyday, conventional astronomy. In retrospect, that's
very far from the way most cosmologists work, but they were the ideas that really intrigued me.
Did you come across the concept of the big bang or the birth of the universe in your reading?
That's hard for me to remember. I probably did, although it may have been a little later. George Gamow was in Washington. Ralph Alpher was writing his
thesis under him. I remember going to a talk by Ralph Alpher on his thesis work.
That was probably in high school or very early in college. So I knew
those ideas [at that time].
It was probably early college because that must have been in the late 1940s.
That's right. I entered college in 1945. In fact, it turns out that Ralph Alpher worked in this building in the late 1930's as a secretary. They would not hire
women here until during the war. Even the secretaries were male. I have since learned that he got out of high school very young and wanted to work for a
year before going to college, so he worked here as a secretary.
Did you know when you were in high school that you wanted to go into astronomy, or was that later on?
Yes, by high school I knew I wanted to study astronomy. I knew I wanted to be an astronomer. I didn't know a single astronomer, but I just knew that was
what I wanted to do.
Did you know that it was a career possibility or have some sense of that?