Writing a novel requires an author to make many decisions. Where a scene is set might seem like an easy one, but can actually be difficult and require a good deal of research. I once spent two hours trying to find the right location for an amateur astronomer’s perfect home-based observatory. The mountains of New Mexico near Las Vegas were my choice. Las Vegas, NM, not NV. I didn’t know there was another Las Vegas. It wasn’t an earth-shattering discovery, but it was interesting nonetheless.
Even character names can require research. Let’s say you’ve set your murder mystery in a quaint up-state New York village. It wouldn’t do to have your serial killer share a name with the village’s mayor. I researched Korean names to make up a name for a sinister corporation. Did you know Young, also Yeong, means brave, and Jang Young Sil was a 15th century scientist and inventor? Well now you do.
Scientific and technical subjects require a good deal of research for me. I don’t want my novels to reveal how ignorant I am. While researching Disturbance: The Vetting, I met a very fascinating woman, Vera Rubin.
Vera was born in Philadelphia at Temple University Hospital in 1928. She was the second daughter of immigrant parents. Her father immigrated as a young boy from Lithuania and became an electrical engineer. Her family moved to Washington, D.C. when she was ten. By eleven, she was fascinated with stars. She watched them from her bedroom window intrigued by how they rotated during the night. She learned to recognize meteors and could draw maps of their paths; by the time she was in middle school, she’d built her own telescope. She didn’t care about the constellation names; it was their movements that captured her attention.
In high school, she got a dose of the macho nature of science. Her physics teacher, Mr. Himes, barely recognized her existence and rarely talked to her. He certainly didn’t provide a nurturing environment. When she shared her joy at getting a scholarship to Vassar, he said she’d do okay if she stayed away from science.
She didn’t stay away. She declared for astronomy at Vassar and received her degree in three years. She applied to Princeton’s master program in 1948, but received no response, not even a catalog. Women weren’t admitted to Princeton’s astronomy program until 1975. She enrolled at Cornell and completed her masters in 1951, and received her doctorate in 1954 from Georgetown.
During her studies, she made observations of galactic movements and noted they weren’t distributed randomly, which was the accepted belief at the time. Her PhD thesis argued that galaxies clumped together and rotated around unknown centers. Her thesis was controversial and not well received. She, and a talented instrument maker, Kent Ford, made hundreds of observation regarding the motion of the Milky Way. The Rubin-Ford Effect is named after them.
Rubin moved to the less controversial topic of galactic rotation and again up-ended accepted belief. Her work showed that galaxies were rotating much faster than traditional physics predicted. Ultimately, her noted discrepancies led to the concept of dark matter.
Don’t confuse dark matter with the tremendous mass of black holes, they’re not the same. Rubin’s work implies some kind of unknown matter is influencing the orbit of galaxies. We can’t see it; it doesn’t collapse into stars, but we can see its influence. Some calculations indicate dark matter may be ten times more massive than normal matter.
I’m very impressed by the accomplishments of Vera Rubin, particularly given the male dominated environment she’s had to live in. Vera has received numerous prizes and acknowledgements, but not the Nobel. She is still active as far as I know. There is even a grass roots movement to get her a Nobel in 2015 and a Facebook page to like for that purpose. Click here: Grass Roots Movement
An Oral History Transcript Dr. Vera Cooper-Rubin, Also see her Wikipedia article.
David P. Cantrell is an author and member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff.