Vera Rubin at Lowell Observatory, courtesy of Carnegie Institution for Science.

A Statement From Carnegie President Eric Isaacs:

As we commemorate the extraordinary life of Vera Rubin—who forever altered how we understand the universe—on what would have been her 93rd birthday, I keep coming back to a legendary moment in her transformative career and what it can teach us about our present moment.

When she joined Carnegie, she had to battle for access to the 200-inch telescope at Palomar Observatory. She was told “your time on the observatory is limited, because we don’t have a women’s bathroom.”

So, as the story has been told, as I’ve heard it, she solved the problem pretty simply by cutting out a little paper skirt and taping it to the stick figure image of a man which was on the men’s room door. And she turned around and said, “now you have a ladies' room” and then she got to work.

So, that was Vera Rubin. And she knew that the work she was doing was extremely important and she refused to allow petty prejudices to stand in her way.

But what if she hadn’t been that fierce? What if she hadn’t been the personality that we have all come to know—the unstoppable warrior? That would have been a tremendous loss if Vera Rubin had listened when she was told that she was not really welcomed at Palomar.

And here’s the question that really haunts me, which is how many Vera Rubins have we lost to these kinds of obstacles?

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Earth/Planetary Science