Tag Archives: obituary

Vera Rubin R.I.P.

Vera Rubin, whose work helped confirm the existence of dark matter, passed away December 25 at the age of 88.

In the 1960s, Rubin’s interest in how stars orbit their galactic centers led her and colleague Kent Ford to study the Andromeda galaxy, M31, a nearby spiral. The two scientists wanted to determine the distribution of mass in M31 by looking at the orbital speeds of stars and gas at varying distances from the galactic center. They expected the speeds to conform to Newtonian gravitational theory, whereby an object farther from its central mass orbits slower than those closer in. To their surprise, the scientists found that stars far from the center traveled as fast as those near the center.

After observing dozens more galaxies by the 1970s, Rubin and colleagues found that something other than the visible mass was responsible for the stars’ motions. Each spiral galaxy is embedded in a “halo” of dark matter—material that does not emit light and extends beyond the optical galaxy. They found it contains 5 to 10 times as much mass as the luminous galaxy. As a result of Rubin’s groundbreaking work, it has become apparent that more than 90% of the universe is composed of this invisible material. The first inkling that dark matter existed came in 1933 when Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky of Caltech proposed it. But it was not until Rubin’s work that dark matter was confirmed.

Rubin was a top notch astronomer, which is why she was part of this important discovery. She was also an exception, as at the time relatively few women were interested in becoming astronomers. Be prepared, however, for a slew of articles in the next few days focused not about her work and her contributions to science, but focused instead almost entirely on the sexist oppression she had to overcome in the evil sexist male chauvinist society of mid-twentieth-century America.

All those articles will be wrong. While there were certainly obstacles in Rubin’s way because of her sex, they were hardly as bad as it will be made out to be. Worse, this focus on gender and oppression will distract from honoring the passing of a great astronomer. It will also distract from the significance of her discovery, which continues to baffle astronomers a half century later.

Share

R.I.P. George Mueller

One of the most important managers during the 1960s and 1970s at NASA, George Mueller (pronounced “Miller”) has passed away at 97 after a short illness.

NASA and sources close to Mueller’s family confirmed his passing on Thursday (Oct. 15).

Mueller, as associate administrator, headed the Office of Manned Space Flight at NASA’s Washington headquarters from 1963 through 1969. During that time, Mueller brought together NASA’s three human spaceflight centers under a common management system, introduced an approach to testing that made landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade possible, played a key part in the design of the United States’ first space station and advocated for a reusable space transportation system that became known as the space shuttle.

Unlike the many government managers that followed him, Mueller’s goal was never to build an empire, but to get humans into space as quickly and as efficiently as possible. If only we had more people like him.

Share

Neil Armstrong

I think the gracious statement by Neil Armstrong’s family sums up his life quite well.

We are heartbroken to share the news that Neil Armstrong has passed away following complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures.

Neil was our loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend.

Neil Armstrong was also a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job. He served his Nation proudly, as a navy fighter pilot, test pilot, and astronaut. He also found success back home in his native Ohio in business and academia, and became a community leader in Cincinnati.

He remained an advocate of aviation and exploration throughout his life and never lost his boyhood wonder of these pursuits.

As much as Neil cherished his privacy, he always appreciated the expressions of good will from people around the world and from all walks of life.

While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves.

For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.

Share

R.I.P: Roger Boisjoly, 73, has died.

R.I.P: Roger Boisjoly, 73, has died.

Boisjoly was the engineer who in 1985 warned NASA about the danger of launching the shuttle in cold weather, that the solid rocket booster’s joints might not seal correctly under those conditions, thereby causing a catastrophic failure. Sadly, he was ignored, even ostracized, and on January 28, 1986, Challenger broke apart 74 seconds after launch, killing seven astronauts.

Share

John Marburger: The passing of a scientific gentleman

Guest post by Phil Berardelli

John H. Marburger III, former science adviser to President George W. Bush and head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, died this past week from non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He was 70.

Just about every news article reporting the death describes Dr. Marburger, a physicist and former head of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, as a controversial figure. This article, for instance, in The New York Times, said the following about Marburger:

In a critical editorial in April 2004, The New York Times, addressing accusations that the Bush administration had distorted or suppressed scientific information that would conflict with its policy preferences, acknowledged the respect Dr. Marburger commanded, calling him “a respected physicist and lifelong Democrat who would not seem an automatic apologist for this administration.” But it added, “The question yet to be answered is whether he is speaking from conviction when he claims that the critics are off base or is serving as a frontman for an administration whose activities in this area are sometimes hard to defend.”

Apparently, because Marburger — a Democrat and one of the longest-serving members of the administration — supported some of the positions espoused by the Bush White House, that made him controversial. But in my 40 years as a journalist and 15 years of covering science, I can’t think of a person I encountered who was more earnest and straightforward.
» Read more

Share