ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now let's look to the stars, in particular one woman who helped us understand them a bit more. The astronomer Vera Rubin discovered evidence of dark matter in the 1980s. She died over the weekend at the age of 88. Vera Rubin and her work influenced many other scientists, including Risa Wechsler, a professor of physics at Stanford University. She joins us now from Miami. Welcome to the program.
RISA WECHSLER: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: Since Dr. Rubin's legacy is so tied to dark matter, I think we have to start by briefly explaining what dark matter is and why it's so important to science.
WECHSLER: It's really hard to overstate the importance of her contribution to how we understand the universe today. What she discovered was that around every single galaxy there is extra matter that we can't see, that doesn't emit light. And that's really foundational to how we understand how the universe evolves and how galaxies form. So it's really at the heart of what the universe is made of and why we are here in our galaxy today.
SHAPIRO: If that was her impact on science, can you tell us a little bit about her impact on you as a younger scientist?
WECHSLER: Absolutely. She was an incredible role model for me and for really generations of scientists for a couple of reasons. The first was just essentially her relentless curiosity and the way she went about her work. You know, as a woman scientist of her generation, she faced pretty extreme barriers at many stages, you know, including she was the first woman to be able to use the telescope that she did her groundbreaking work - and essentially just whenever there was a barrier, she found a way around. So, you know, I think that's an incredible, inspiring story for me and for many scientists who face barriers in their work.
SHAPIRO: Apart from knocking down barriers in her own path, she was generally a very strong advocate for women in science. How much do you think she can be credited with shrinking the gender gap for women in science?
WECHSLER: Well, she certainly played a role through her own example and through her advocacy. I've talked to many astronomers even in the last day who have their own stories about how Vera took them seriously, you know, even when they were students, sort of inspired them to take their own work seriously. And in addition to that, she really pushed at a broader national level for women in science and for generally broadening participation in science, and for the role of science in society.
SHAPIRO: Do you think that at the end of her life she was satisfied that women had achieved as much as they had the potential to? Or were there still barriers to women in science even today?
WECHSLER: I think Vera saw that those barriers still do exist both within science itself and within society. She had four children, all of whom were scientists. And she told this story about how her daughter went to a meeting where she was the only woman. It was very sad for her. So I think she recognized that there was progress, but that it really had been too slow.
SHAPIRO: Do you think that during her life she got the recognition she deserved?
WECHSLER: Well, she's certainly very well-recognized among astronomers and cosmologists. But I think although she did get many of the top awards, given the importance of the work, given how foundational it is to how we understand the universe that there's a strong feeling that she was certainly deserving of a Nobel Prize, which in physics has not gone to a woman in more than 50 years.
SHAPIRO: When did you last speak to her?
WECHSLER: I last had the chance to speak to Vera at a conference which was in honor of her 80th birthday. And she was just so gratified to see this entire room full of cosmologists whose field essentially was started by her foundational work.
SHAPIRO: Dr. Risa Wechsler. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
WECHSLER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.