As if 2016 hadn’t already stolen enough of our beloved icons, this week we said goodbye to a pair of women who changed the face of science and science fiction, respectively: astrophysicist Vera Rubin, whose work confirmed the existence of dark matter, and actress Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia in Star Wars.
Rubin made tremendous contributions to our knowledge of the universe, and she did it in the face of pervasive discrimination. Although she was passionate about astronomy from childhood, teachers discouraged her from pursuing the sciences as a girl, and she was the only astronomy major to graduate from the women’s college Vassar in 1948. When she applied for Ph.D programs, some prestigious institutions rejected her because of policies against admitting women. She earned her degree anyway and was reportedly the first woman granted access to San Diego’s Palomar Observatory, an institution so male-dominated that it didn’t even have a women’s restroom.
During the 1960s and 70s, Rubin studied the behavior of spiral galaxies and discovered they spun faster than they should under only the gravitational influence of visible matter. Another force had to be involved: dark matter. Rubin’s work confirmed the concept Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky proposed in the 1930s, revolutionizing our approach to cosmology and physics.
In addition to her remarkable scientific accomplishments, Rubin was a dedicated advocate for females in science. “Worldwide, half of all brains are in women,” she observed. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and was awarded the National Medal of Science. When she died on December 25 at age 88, she left the scientific community stronger both in collective knowledge and in the opportunities it afforded to a new generation of women.
It wasn’t only 20th century science institutions that undervalued women; much of popular science fiction did, too. I’ve loved the genre for as long as I can remember, but the 1980s and 90s offered few good heroines in any popular kid-friendly fiction, much less sci-fi. When those stories had female characters at all, they were usually little more than props for the hero.
The bright star in that desolate universe of androcentric sci-fi was Carrie Fisher. Her Princess Leia wasn’t like the Disney princesses I saw on our scratchy old VHS tapes, who trilled with bluebirds and waited around for their princes to come. Leia shot laser guns and dove down garbage chutes, tinkered with faulty hyperdrives and raced through the woods on a speeder bike. She tossed quips at enemy captors and the man she loved with equal aplomb. Tough, clever, and unafraid of being in charge, she became my idol as a little girl. Leia’s Star Wars (the one I grew up in) wasn’t quite the egalitarian galaxy her successors Rey and Jyn now inhabit. Her landscape, like Rubin’s, was a boy’s club, but she seemed all the more remarkable for it. Fisher imbued the character with spirit and dignity that made her unforgettable.
There was more to Fisher than Star Wars when she died yesterday at age 60. Remembrances across the media acknowledge her accomplishments in writing and her laudable candor about mental illness. I heard her interview on NPR just a few weeks before her death; she read excerpts from the diary she kept while shooting A New Hope. The intelligent expression and keen observation impresses me, especially since Fisher was just 19 at the time. She’s not just Princess Leia, I reminded myself. She’s a writer, too, just like you. Without question, Fisher should be recognized for more than a single screen part, however iconic. Yet this fangirl will always be grateful for that first science fiction role model and all it inspired. Without Fisher’s Leia anchoring my young self-esteem, maybe I wouldn’t have been such an outspoken high achiever in school, or blazed so fearlessly into a male-dominated professional field, or pursued science fiction writing despite lingering prejudices in the genre. I certainly wouldn’t be the woman I am today.
Both Rubin and Fisher made Planet Earth a little more accepting of female agency in science and the stories we tell about it. The force of their legacies, as subtly powerful as dark matter, will be with us always.