Debbie Reynolds and Vera Rubin: Reaching for the stars

David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds—the world lost some stars this year. But most people don't know that we lost a star far more brilliant than those.

Composite photo, Debbie Reynolds (L) and Vera Rubin (R). (Image sources: Wikipedia entry on Debbie Reynolds, CC 2.0; NSF photo of Vera Rubin, U.S. Gov. agency, public domain)

WASHINGTON, December 28, 2016 — Whatever else you might say about her,  Debbie Reynolds had impeccable timing.

Carrie Fisher’s autobiographical roman à clef, “Postcards from the Edge,” was later made into a movie starring Shirley MacClaine and Meryl Streep. The film’s Carrie Fisher character (Streep) suffers from, among other things, a self-absorbed and upstaging mother, the Debbie Reynolds character (MacClaine).

Reynolds’ stroke and death upstaged her daughter’s death in a masterstroke of comedic timing. Fisher might have been as tickled by that as she’d have been had she really been strangled by her own bra, drowned in the moonlight.

Fisher and Reynolds were women of uncommon talent who brought joy to millions. They’ll be missed. And so will the other artists and notables who died in 2016: David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Harper Lee, George Michael, Prince and many more. They were generally extraordinary people. They were stars, and they were brilliant.

It seems to many on social media that 2016 has been a murderous year for celebrities, the year playing out like a novel by George R.R. Martin; our favorite characters have been dropping like flies, or like the people of Westeros. The BBC reports that an unusual number of stars did indeed die in the first half of 2016. The death rate slowed in the second half, however.

Why does this seem like such a particularly bad year, then? And why have the total celebrity deaths trended upward over the last few years? The answer may be quite easy: There are more celebrities today than there were a generation ago. They are generated not just by film and politics, but by TV (with proliferating channels and networks churning them out by the hundreds), sports, and the internet in a truly global market for celebrity.

Nancy Reagan, Gene Wilder and Alan Rickman would have been notable deaths in any year, but the pool of celebrity has spread. When the likes of the Kardashians begin to drop, celebrity obituaries may become an everyday affair.

As the celebrity firmament gradually fills with faux stars—people who are merely famous, not brilliant—there are other stars out there, stars more brilliant than Bowie, Fisher or Wilder. They are less noticed by most of us because, like blue supergiants and supernovae on the far side of our galaxy or in galaxies far, far away, they are too distant from the worlds we inhabit to catch our attention.

Consider Vera Rubin.

Vera Rubin was an astronomer. She died this month at 88. Her observations, data and calculations were revolutionary, even earth-shattering. She was the first person to realize that there was much more to the universe than meets the eye. Rubin discovered the existence of dark matter.

Our galaxy has mass, and it rotates. And like all massive, rotating objects, forces act upon it to hold it together and to pull it apart. Our galaxy holds together under the pull of its enormous gravity, but Rubin realized that given the speed of that rotation and the gravitational pull of all the stars and nebulae in the galaxy, our galaxy, and every other galaxy, should be flying apart.

There had to be more matter there than we could see, matter that doesn’t emit or interact with light, hence that is invisible and detectable only by the gravity it produces. Calculations indicate that only about 15 percent of the mass of the universe is composed of regular matter, while 85 percent of the mass is dark matter, invisible matter whose existence is proven by the fact that stars are bound in the vast whorls of galaxies and not strewn across the void.

Astronomers believed for centuries when they looked out at the planets and the stars that they were seeing all that was out there. Rubin found that they were seeing hardly any of what was out there.

She should have won a Nobel Prize in physics for that discovery; the later discoverers of dark energy did win the prize. But the Nobel committees aren’t perfect, and many people who might deserve prizes are overlooked. Some claim that Rubin was overlooked because she was a woman—only two women have ever won a Nobel Prize in physics—and that may be true. She faced and smashed professional barriers that are as invisible to most men as dark matter.

But she didn’t win, and under its rules, the Nobel committee can’t remedy that oversight with a posthumous award. But still she shone, brilliantly. She was a mentor to women in science, working to get more into the National Academy of Sciences—not as a reward for being women in science, but on their merits.

Rubin reached for the stars, and she was a star. Be sorry about Fisher and Reynolds and Cohen and Bowie and all the other celebrities who died this year. They were talented and they mattered. But if you were upset to your feminist core by the Steve Martin tribute to Fisher that mentioned her beauty before her talent and brains, and if you didn’t know who Vera Rubin was before now, rethink your feminism.

If you care about little girls reaching for greatness and the stars and care more about Fisher’s death than Rubin’s, you should read about Rubin and see what she did, then tell your children about her. The entertainment industry stars who died this year were talented, even brilliant. But Rubin takes second place to none of them.

The world focuses on fame. Rubin’s legacy is important beyond “Hallelujah,” and will last longer than fame. If little girls growing up today someday use Rubin’s data, she’ll have left a legacy greater than all those celebrities combined.

“Fame is fleeting. My numbers mean more to me than my name. If astronomers are still using my data years from now, that’s my greatest compliment.” Vera Rubin

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