Kid Lit Review of “The Stuff Between the Stars” by Sandra Nickel

Subtitled “How Vera Rubin Discovered Most of the Universe, this book introduces kids to Vera Cooper Rubin, an American astronomer who revealed that the known universe was just the tip of the iceberg. Her evidence established the presence of vast clouds of dark matter holding galaxies and stars in their grip. As “The New York Times” wrote upon Vera’s death at age 88 in 2016, “Her work helped usher in a Copernican-scale change in cosmic consciousness . . . ”

The author reports that as a child, Vera loved to look at the stars, and studied maps of the night sky. She built her own telescope and was determined to major in astronomy when she went to college, even though her high school teachers advised her that astronomy was a “man’s world” and she should study something like art instead.

But she persisted, and graduated from Vassar College in 1948, the sole astronomer in the class.

Vera Rubin as an undergraduate at Vassar, 1940s

She got married and had children, but she still continued her research.

She had hoped to get a Ph.D. from Princeton, but the astrophysics graduate program not only did not admit women but would not even send her a course catalog. She went to Cornell for a master’s degree and finished it in 1951.

When her husband got a job at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, she enrolled at Georgetown University, earning her doctorate with the finding that galaxies were clumped together in patterns. She began teaching astronomy, but decided she really wanted to be where the large observatories were. She applied in person for a job at Palomar Observatory in California, impressing the director so much he hired her on the spot. Alas, as the author writes:

“Vera’s first discovery was that there was no women’s room.”

Vera observed galaxies at Palomar as well as at Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona and recorded the spin of galaxies as she watched. To her astonishment, she discovered that the stars on the edges of galaxies were moving as fast as the stars at the center, which were nearest to the galaxy’s pull of gravity. What was affecting the stars at the edges? “Dark matter” ‘thought Vera.’”

Astronomers refused to believe her work at first. But Vera was able to replicate her findings with observations made of over two hundred galaxies. Nickel recounts:

“The senior astronomers stopped shaking their heads. They finally admitted Vera was right. She had shown that the mysterious dark matter made up more than 80 percent of the matter in the universe.

Vera was no longer at the edge of astronomy. She was at its very center.”

The author concludes with a quote from Vera:

“Each one of you can change the world, for you are made of star stuff, and you are connected to the universe.”

Back matter includes an Author’s Note, timeline of Vera Rubin’s life, and a selected bibliography.

The New York Times obituary of Vera relates a number of anecdotes about how difficult it was for her to be accepted into the world of male astronomy. For example, one time, the article notes, Vera was excited to be summoned to a meeting with the eminent astrophysicist George Gamow, only to learn that they would have to talk in the lobby because women were not allowed upstairs in the offices.

Dr. Rubin never forgot, and endeavored to serve as a “guiding light” for a generation of female astronomers.

Aimée Sicuro uses watercolor, ink, and charcoal pencil to illustrate scenes in Vera’s life, including a wonderful allusion to Marc Chagall’s wedding paintings to show her marriage. Starry backgrounds appear first as just part of Vera’s dreams at night, but end up being featured as the constant reality of her life’s work.

Evaluation: This picture book for readers 7 and up reflects the view of the author that “no topic is too complicated for kids. You just have to find the right way to tell it.” She succeeds admirably, all the while showing kids that females have played a significant role in fields historically considered to be male bastions. She maintains they can continue to do so, with doggedness, pluck, and perhaps a sense of humor to endure the slings and arrows of sexism they will encounter along the way.

Vera Rubin in 1974

There is still a lot of work to do on that score. In a 1989 interview with physicist Alan Lightman, Vera told him:

“My daughter is an astronomer. She got her Ph.D. in cosmic ray physics and went off to a meeting in Japan, and she came back and told me she was the only woman there. I really couldn’t tell that story for a long time without weeping, because certainly in one generation, between her generation and mine, not an awful lot [has changed]. Some things are better, but not enough things.”

Rating: 5/5

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021

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