e: dark matter


Vera Cooper Rubin (1928 -2016)

Vera Rubin is credited with proving the existence of “dark matter,” or nonluminous mass, and forever altering our notions of the universe. By the late 1970s, after Rubin and her colleagues had observed dozens of spiral galaxies, it was clear that something other than the visible mass was responsible for the motions of the stars within them. Her calculations showed that, for the velocities measured, the galaxies must contain about ten times as much “dark” mass as can be accounted for by the visible stars. As a result of Rubin’s groundbreaking work, it has become apparent that more than 90% of the universe is composed of dark matter (as well as dark energy). Defining it is one of astronomy’s most important pursuits.

When Vera Cooper Rubin told her high school physics teacher that she’d been accepted to Vassar, he said, “That’s great. As long as you stay away from science, it should be okay.” Ignoring him, and the countless others like him, was truly a great idea.

Rubin graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1948, the only astronomy major in her class at Vassar, and went on to receive her master’s from Cornell in 1950 (after being turned away by Princeton because they did not allow women in their astronomy program) and her Ph.D. from Georgetown in 1954. Rubin made a name for herself not only as an astronomer but also as a woman pioneer; she fought through severe criticisms of her work to eventually be elected to the National Academy of Sciences (at the time, only three women astronomers were members) and to win the highest American award in science, the National Medal of Science. However, it is not the fame that Rubin values: “My numbers mean more to me than my name. If astronomers are still using my data years from now, that’s my greatest compliment.”

Rubin is also an observant Jew, and sees no conflict between science and religion. In an interview, she stated: “In my own life, my science and my religion are separate. I’m Jewish, and so religion to me is a kind of moral code and a kind of history. I try to do my science in a moral way, and, I believe that, ideally, science should be looked upon as something that helps us understand our role in the universe.”

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver, published 2010.

This is the most terrifying book I have ever read. Possibly helped by the fact I started reading it in the middle of the night, and finished at two in the morning (like all good ghost stories - it didn’t drag on).

Set in Spitsbergen (now Svalbard) in the arctic circle in 1937, Dark Matter is the tale of Jack, Gus and Algie, and an expedition to the North that goes tragically wrong. Set out in Jack’s diary we experience an intense first hand account of the life in the arctic, the months of winter darkness, the terrible loneliness and - in this case, but by no means a necessity for overwintering - a haunting.

Jack’s voice is reliable and relatable, he is a normal man in an extraordinary situation, left alone (due to unforeseen circumstances) with only the huskies for company. His descent into terror is wildly real, his companionship with one dog Isaak is touching and reassuring, his affections for Gus tragic and moving. I felt involved in Jack’s story and - despite the initial chip on his shoulder, for there is much to do with the class system in Dark Matter - I genuinely liked him.

The ghost is terrifying - but not just because of its ghostliness, more to do with the stark and beautiful descriptions Paver weaves of the arctic and the loneliness and the dark that surrounds our lone hero. The arctic is the perfect place for a ghost story. The ghost itself is also a tragic figure, one feels pity and fear for it.

I loved all of the characters, from the stoic Norwegian captain, Eriksson to the chubby toff Algie; from the sensible, brilliant - definitely and poignantly idealised - Gus to the loyal dog Isaak. They are all, though one-sidedly drawn, actually rather real and none of them unsympathetic. The looming threat of WWII serves to make this story an even more moving one.

A beautiful book. A haunting book. A book you should probably read in daylight. In summer. Nowhere near the arctic circle.