Vera Rubin American Institute of Physics

AIP Publishing AIP China Search Oral History Interviews Interviews that offer unique insights into the lives, works, and personalities of modern scientists Home > History Programs > Niels Bohr Library & Archives > Oral Histories Search our Catalogs Archives Books Collections Emilio Segrè Visual Archives Digital Collections Oral Histories Archival finding aids Physics History Network Preservation & Support Donating Materials Saving archival collections Grants to archives Documentation Projects History Newsletter Center for History of Physics Scholarship & Outreach Support our work SHARE THIS Interviewed by: Alan Lightman Location: Washington, D.C. Interview date: Monday, 3 April 1989 See catalog record for this interview. See additional images of Vera Rubin. ORAL HISTORIES Vera Rubin Usage information and disclaimer Preferred citation Abstract Programs and Resources Publications Career Resources Member Societies About AIP Donate now
Abstract Audio excerpt Transcript: Lightman: I wanted to start with your childhood. Could you tell me about any particularly influential experiences you had as a child, particularly anything that got you interested in science? Rubin: My father was an electrical engineer. He's presently 92 and still could be holding down a job. He had a very analytical way of looking at things, and I enjoyed that very much. I think that was a very large influence. My childhood bedroom — if childhood could be about ten years old — had a bed which was under windows which faced north. At about age 10, I started watching the stars just move through the night. Lightman: Lying in your bed? Rubin: Lying in bed. By about age 12, I would prefer to stay up and watch the stars than go to sleep. I started learning. I started going to the library and reading. But it was initially just watching the stars from my bedroom that I really did. There was just nothing as interesting in my life as watching the stars every night. Lightman: Did you have siblings? Rubin: I have an older sister. She's now a judge. I had the usual friends who pointed out constellations of stars. But it really was watching the stars. It was getting some sense of the motion of the earth. I found it a remarkable thing. You could tell time "by the stars." I could see meteorites. My parents were very, very supportive, except that they didn't like me to stay up all night. Lightman: They knew you had an interest in this? Rubin: They knew I had an interest in this. A few years ago, I met a friend of my mothers who I do not know at all and hadn't seen for 50 years. She said to me, "The last time I saw you, I was picking your mother up at your house. As your mother went out the door, she yelled up the stairs, 'Vera, don't spend the whole night with your head out the window!' " So yes, they knew I was doing this. But the net result was that when there were meteor showers and things [like that], I would not put the light on. Throughout the night, I would memorize where each one went so that in the morning I could make a map of all their trails. I really don't think [my parents] would have protested as much as I [then] thought they would. Lightman: But you did make a map of the meteors? Rubin: I really would make maps, yes. Lightman: Did you get encouragement from your mother as well as your father? Rubin: Yes, from both of them. My father helped me build a telescope, which was really a total flop, but was sort of fun. I ordered a lens from Edmund's and got a cardboard tube that linoleum came rolled on. I took a bus downtown and brought it home on the bus. We were living in Washington, in the city, and you
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. Lightman: 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 age? Rubin: I read a lot of books, such as [James] Jeans's book, The Universe Around Us [ 1 ] and Eddington's early books. [ 2 ] 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 books. Lightman: Did you read anything about cosmology or the universe as a whole at this time? Rubin: 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. Lightman: That's going around universe? Rubin: 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. Lightman: Did you come across the concept of the big bang or the birth of the universe in your reading? Rubin: 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. [ 3 ] That was probably in high school or very early in college. So I knew those ideas [at that time]. Lightman: It was probably early college because that must have been in the late 1940s. Rubin: 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. Lightman: Did you know when you were in high school that you wanted to go into astronomy, or was that later on? Rubin: 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. Lightman: Did you know that it was a career possibility or have some sense of that?
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