Astronomer Vera Rubin passed away Sunday. You should know about her if you don't.

Astronomer Vera Rubin passed away Dec. 25, 2016, at the age of 88.

Vera Rubin. Photo by Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Rubin was a pioneer in her field — one of the few prominent women astronomers of her time, who, in an era of oppressive professional sexism, uncovered some of the best evidence of the existence of dark matter — the mysterious stuff that we can't see that binds the universe together.


In addition to contributing to one of the major scientific discoveries of the 20th century, she was also a no-nonsense badass who fought for gender equality in her field from the beginning of the career to the end of her life.

Here are just a few of the ways she showed up:

1. She was blunt about the problems women faced in science — and knew exactly where to place the blame.

Rubin (second from left) with colleagues at the Women in Astronomy and Space Science Conference. Photo by NASA.

According to her NPR obituary, Rubin was fantastically upfront about the injustice and institutionalized misogyny that kept women out of jobs in STEM fields, noting that Rubin carried three basic assumptions with her at all times:

"(1) There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman.

(2) Worldwide, half of all brains are in women.

(3) We all need permission to do science, but, for reasons that are deeply ingrained in history, this permission is more often given to men than to women."



Hard to argue with that.

2. She presented her graduate thesis to a room full of the most prominent astronomers in the world — while pregnant.

While in graduate school in the 1950s, Rubin discovered something anomalous about the space just outside our cosmic neighborhood — a region that was more densely packed with galaxies than those that surrounded it.

But when her adviser suggested she present her findings to the American Astronomical Society, he offered to present it for her because Rubin was set to deliver her first child a month before the meeting and he assumed she would be too consumed with the demands of motherhood to attend.

"Oh, I can go,'" she said matter-of-factly. And go she did.

She stumped her way through the presentation, where her work was largely dismissed by the review panel of accomplished, skeptical male scientists (and never published). Years later, however, astronomers confirmed the significance of her findings: Rubin had discovered the super-galactic plane, the "belt" around the supercluster of galaxies that includes the Milky Way — without anyone, including her, realizing it.

3. She once integrated the bathrooms at an all-male observatory by force.

"No girls allowed. Nah nah Pbbbbffffbbbtt." Photo by Coneslayer/Wikimedia Commons.

Early in her career, Rubin was invited to observe at Caltech's Palomar Observatory — the first woman ever allowed to work inside the testosterone-laden facility. The observatory was such a boys club that there was no ladies room on the premises.

"She went to her room, she cut up paper into a skirt image, and she stuck it on the little person image on the door of the bathroom," Neta Bahcall, a former colleague, told Astronomy Magazine in a June 2016 interview. "She said, 'There you go; now you have a ladies’ room.'"

4. She never won the Nobel Prize, and despite the many outraged on her behalf, she didn't really care.

No woman has won the Nobel Prize in physics for over 50 years — not due, according to many professionals in the field, to lack of qualified candidates, of whom Rubin was the most prominent.

Rubin, however, was dismissive of the snub as she felt her work spoke for itself.

"Fame is fleeting," Rubin said, in a 1990 interview with Discover Magazine. "My numbers mean more to me than my name. If astronomers are still using my data years from now, that's my greatest compliment."

5. She was only active on Twitter for one day — and used that time to tell girls who love science to ignore the haters.

An OECD study from 2015 found that girls equaled or outperformed boys in school performance in most countries but expressed lower confidence in their math abilities.  

On Feb. 3, 2016, Vera Rubin signed on to Twitter. She tweeted this:

She signed off the social media site for good shortly after but not before tweeting one final look at the cosmos — a simulated image of all the dark matter in the universe a short time after the Big Bang.

Because of Rubin, we can do more than admire the beauty of the universe; we can start to break down the mystery piece by piece, layer by layer. And we can do it no matter who we are, where we come from, or however many barriers stand in our way.

Rest in peace.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Simon & Garfunkel's song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been covered by more than 50 different musical artists, from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson. It's a timeless classic that taps into the universal struggle of feeling down and the comfort of having someone to lift us up. It's beloved for its soothing melody and cathartic lyrics, and after a year of pandemic challenges, it's perhaps more poignant now than ever.

A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

But British singer Jacob Collier recently added his own layered harmony tracks to it, taking the performance to a whole other level.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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