Women Who Changed the World

Vera Rubin — cosmologist who deserved a Nobel Prize

Mighty Girls should be celebrated

By Prue Hyman 

I’m starting 2017 with a rousing feminist column, bemoaning the lack of celebration of good women and introducing some who should be better known.

And of course the ongoing impediments to women having the opportunity to achieve in many parts of the world need major actions (ALL parts of the world but some are worse!)

Women achievers Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton

Take Vera Rubin – a recent example where a woman has been well celebrated AFTER she died aged 88 in December, but few of us had heard of during her life (unless we were astronomers).

She discovered the existence of dark matter, thanks to a job her male colleagues thought too boring and menial to bother with.

Mapping 200-plus galaxies

She wasn’t the first to come up with the idea, but was the first to spend years painstakingly collecting the data to support it, which involved mapping over 200 galaxies.

Despite making what is probably the single most significant advance in cosmology in the late 20th Century, she never won a Nobel Prize.

(See http://www.theage.com.au/lifestyle/news-and-views/opinion/vale-vera-rubin-the-greatest-astronomer-you-never-heard-of-20161227-gtid1t.html by an admiring man, Andrew Street).

She had picked a topic no one else would be interested in as so often women were forced to do.  Her love was astronomy, “although she ended up having to move into the field sideways via physics at Cornell University, since women simply weren’t eligible to apply for postgraduate astronomy courses” (ibid).

She gained qualifications and experience while raising her four children, all of whom became significant scientists in their own right.

First woman to get a view in at Palomar

In 1965, she was the first woman to get viewing time at the Palomar Observatory – denied to women in many observatories then. “Rubin had done some important early work on the newly discovered field of pulsars, but when it became the sexy subject for ambitious (male) astronomers determined to make their mark, Rubin was effectively squeezed out.”

As she later explained: ‘I decided to pick a problem that I could go observing and make headway on – hopefully, a problem that people would be interested in, but not so interested in that anyone would bother me before I was done.’

Specifically, she looked at how many stars were contained in galaxies – literally counting the things from plates of astronomical observations – and in so doing discovered something that no-one else had noticed, because she was a goddamn genius: that there weren’t nearly enough stars in galaxies for them to hold together under their own gravity, given the speed at which galaxies rotate.

By her calculations, the stuff we can see must only be between 10 and 15 per cent of the total matter in the universe. In other words, she discovered the existence of dark matter, thanks to a job her male colleagues thought too boring and menial to bother with.

Rubin is one of many women who should have gained Nobel prizes – only 48 of 960 winners have been women.

Go to http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/lists/women.html to read the wonderful stories of those who overcame sexism sufficiently to achieve this.

Mighty Girls

And to read about hundreds of unknown women who have done amazing things, go the tremendous site A Mighty Girl.

It’s admittedly a commercial venture but it sells excellent non-sexist resources of all sorts for young women (and men), has a great Facebook page, and produces a splendid free weekly newsletter about trailblazing girls and women from around the world.


With the scientific bent of this column, I will mention its recent promotion of Rachel Ignotofsky’s book ‘Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World’ – from world famous role models like Jane Goodall to lesser-known figures like Katherine Johnson, and from historical figures like Hypatia to modern day heroes like Maryam Mirzakhani.

Rachel Ignotofsky

A Mighty Girl also promotes feminist activities round the world, recently promoting ten grassroots organizations founded by girls and women. “From growing healthy vegetables for people in need in the United States to providing solar power to midwives in developing countries to helping orphans in Nepal, these groups are making a real difference both locally and globally…

Dr. Laura Stachel was shocked on a trip to Nigeria when she saw doctors performing an emergency C-section in the dark.

In countries without reliable electrical power, midwives and doctors have to use all sorts of makeshift lights, from candles to cell phones, during deliveries — putting mothers and babies at great risk.

Laura Stachel, co-founder of ‘We Care Solar’ , delivers the goods in Nigeria

So she talked to her husband, Hal Aronson, a solar energy educator, about designing a ‘solar suitcase’ to provide light in such situations. Today, their suitcase includes solar panels and high-quality LED lights, headlamps, a cell phone charging unit, and a fetal Doppler kit for monitoring heart rate, all sturdy enough for rugged use.

Since 2011, Stachel’s non-profit organization, the Berkeley, California-based We Care Solar, has manufactured and distributed 1,900 Solar Suitcases to more than 27 countries.”

And A Mighty Girl publicises younger women doing great things, and their feminism and self confidence.

“I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I’m the first Simone Biles, said the 19-year-old named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year.

With a combined total of 19 Olympic and World Championship medals, she is the most decorated gymnast in U.S. history, winning four gold medals at Rio.

As long as the younger women achieving great things, apply their abilities and fame to mentoring others and improving the position of women worldwide, feminism will continue to thrive.

Hopefully, along with other movements challenging the orthodoxies of current colonialism and capitalism, it will help to change the world in 2017 and beyond – I try to keep optimistic about all that in spite of the inevitable gloom from current and recent politics.

Great stuff as always Prue! Your detail on the unsung Vera Rubin is a reminder of the many women who preceded her in pioneering the field of astronomy. New Zealand’s own Beatrice Hill Tinsley was one and there were the”Harvard Computers” back in the 19th century.

Dava Sobel tells their story in “The Glass Universe: the Hidden History of the Women Who Took the Measure of the Stars” and was recently interviewed on Kim Hill’s Saturday morning programme.

It is appalling that so many outstanding and innovative women throughout history, have never been given the credit they deserve, often because of the jealousy of male colleagues and the world media being dominated by men.

Your contribution on helping to set the record straight is very timely.