I asked fellow Vatican astronomer Fr Chris Corbally to write a few words about his friend and colleague, Dr. Vera Rubin:
Dr. Vera Rubin died on Sunday, Christmas Day, in Princeton, N.J. She was 88.
Vera had been a longtime staff astronomer at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, was married to Dr. Robert J. Rubin, a mathematician and chemist who predeceased her, and they had four children, all of whom became doctoral level scientists. These facts appear simple, but what a remarkable and delightful person Vera was, especially for us at the Vatican Observatory!
Though I had met her in passing at meetings of the American Astronomical Society, I came to know her and her husband Bob during the first Vatican Observatory Summer School in 1986. The “VOSS” was the brainchild of Father Martin McCarthy, a staff member of the Vatican Observatory from 1958 to 1999, and it was initiated with the help of the then director, Father George Coyne.
Both Martin and George knew Vera well from their Georgetown University days. They knew of her passion for science, her doggedness in pursuing the observations to verify the existence of dark matter which the Caltech astronomer Fritz Zwicky had predicted to be the gravitational glue to hold galaxies together, and her determination to provide opportunities for women in science. So, when it came choose faculty for the first VOSS, Vera was an obvious one. The other obvious choice was Dr. David Latham, also a wonderful scientist, innovator, and teacher.
We didn’t know in 1986 if the idea of a VOSS would work. But Martin, George, Vera, and David, with help from the rest of the VO, brought together at Castel Gandolfo 25 early-graduate level students, representing almost as many countries, both developing and industrialized, and with an even mix of men and women. They came for a month of learning astronomy together – all without any exams.
It did work, magnificently, thanks to the high quality of science exchanged and the warmth of relationships generated between faculty and students, and among the students themselves. Opportunities were shared afterward so that those from developing countries could get studentships and post-doc positions in the countries with well-established astronomy programs. As a result, 86% of VOSS students found and continued in research jobs – and maintained lifelong friendships.
Vera’s free giving of her unique talents had a lot to do with the success of the first VOSS, as well as setting a pattern for all the others. For one thing, we simply had to maintain a high percentage of women among those chosen to come to a school!
Vera was always a strong supporter of the idea that the Catholic Church should have a firm presence in scientific research. I remember two ways in which she demonstrated this.
In Tucson on September 17, 1993, the eve of the dedication of VATT, the Vatican’s telescope on Mount Graham, Vera kindly gave the after-dinner talk to all our benefactors and friends. She was lively, brief, and inspiring. After her talk, we all wanted to head out and use the new telescope to explore the universe.
In 1996 Pope John Paul II appointed Vera to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a distinguished group of scientists from all fields. “Should you now call me, Your Eminence?”, Vera, an observant Jew, asked her friend and Jesuit priest, Martin McCarthy. He responded, “Only when you wear red, Vera!”
Vera, I also remember when you were a guest at our table in Tucson during the 50th anniversary celebration of Kitt Peak National Observatory. What great conversation flowed, and what a delight that was! Now Rest in Peace, and let your remarkable life be continued through all the others whom you inspired.
Chris Corbally, S.J.