How I Became an Astronomer

Vera Rubin: Oral History Excerpts

VR: We moved further north to 5th and Tuckerman Street. Takoma Park DC—three houses from the new high school that had recently been built (Calvin Coolidge Senior High School, opened in September, 1940—CL).

What years were you there?

VR: 1942 to 1945.

Exciting years to be in Washington, I guess.

VR: yeah, it was. 5th Street was a well traveled street. In my senior year, my third year, I had to leave school early one afternoon in February or March of 1945 for an interview because I had won a scholarship. It was raining. I left the school…I looked…you see the things I remember. I crossed the street in the rain and looked up the street where I noticed a long line of cars coming down. I decided it must be someone important. Six or eight cars in a row. I stood in the rain waiting so I could see what it was. I was getting wetter and wetter. Therefore, when it passed I must have looked very funny. As it turned out, the person sitting in the first seat next to the driver was the president. He laughed when he saw me. He was coming home, I figured out, from the Yalta conference [with Stalin and Churchill]. So, that’s how I saw the president in the rain.

You mentioned that you had this experience when you were on you way to collect a scholarship. Tell us about the scholarship.

VR: I got a scholarship to Vassar. There were not many places in this country where a girl could study Astronomy and we didn’t have a lot of money. I applied to Vassar and Bryn Mawr. Bryn Mawr had someone interview you at some fancy hotel down town. She and I didn’t get along very well. She asked me what I wanted to do and I said I wanted to be an Astronomer. And she said, well, is there anything else that interests you? I responded that sometimes I paint. I still remember this: she then said “well, why don’t you consider a career where you paint pictures of astronomical objects?” (laughter) Yeah. Believe me, I felt like laughing. I realized we weren’t doing very well. And I wasn’t accepted.

Their loss.

VR: Well, yeah, but I have met people who have gone there. In fact, I have given many talks there by now. Of course they later said you shouldn’t have listened to her, you should have written to the Biologist or the Astronomer. But I wasn’t knowledgeable—I was sixteen years old and didn’t know how to get scholarships. I knew from the beginning that we just weren’t talking to each other. I even thought of telling her, but I decided that would be worse.

Passing space ships in the night…

VR: That’s right. So, I went to Vassar. And that was wonderful.

Heavenly aspirations
Before we get to Vassar, let me ask you where the notion came from that you wanted to pursue a career in Astronomy?

VR: Yes. When we moved to the little house in the Takoma Park section of Washington, it had one big bedroom for my parents and two little rooms. So, depending on how friendly my sister and I were at that particular time, we would either each have a room, or we would sleep in one room and turn the other room into a sewing room, or to a painting room, or whatever. When we would sleep in the one room, it was a double bed. My sister was older. She could choose where to sleep. She always chose the outside. I was always against the window. That was facing north. Unbelievably—because I have gone back to look at it—my window was above an alley with an unobstructed view of the stars. So, I started watching stars and after a while that was more interesting than sleeping. I would essentially spend the whole night. Sometimes I would see falling stars. I couldn’t turn the light on, because my sister was there. So I would just remember everything of interest I had seen and write it down in the morning. And my parents started complaining that I shouldn’t spend the whole night with my head out the window. Then I started going to the library. I assumed that some people knew everything. I really thought that if I read enough books I would learn everything I wanted to know. I was about ten when this started. We lived four or five blocks from the library. My mother had to write me a note so I could take books out. There were no Astronomy books, only kiddy books on the subject. But I wanted real Astronomy books. I can remember reading them walking home. And then I learned that there were some things that people didn’t know. That was quite a revelation. So, that’s how I became an Astronomer.

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