In his insightful reflection on the crucial difference between talent and genius, Schopenhauer likened talent to a marksman who hits a target others cannot hit, and genius to a marksman who hits a target others cannot see. Among humanity’s rare genius-seers was pioneering astrophysicist Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928–December 25, 2016) — a coruscating intellect animated by a sinewy tenacity, who overcame towering cultural odds by the sheer force of her unbridled curiosity and rigorous devotion to science. In confirming the existence of dark matter, Rubin revolutionized our understanding of the universe, paved the way for modern women in science, and recalibrated the stilted norms of her profession.
Rubin fell in love with the night sky as a young girl, but knew no astronomer, living or dead, to hold as a role model. Eventually, she came upon a children’s book about 19th-century trailblazer Maria Mitchell — America’s first professional female astronomer and the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences — whose story reframed Rubin’s landscape of possibility and emboldened her to pursue stargazing as a vocation rather than a hobby. “It never occurred to me that I couldn’t be an astronomer,” she told Alan Lightman many years later in their wonderful 1990 conversation.