Vera Rubin: 1928 – 2016

Vera Rubin, pioneering dark matter theory researcher and staunch supporter of women in science, died on Christmas Day at the age of 88.

A trailblazing and inspiring woman, she let her light shine through and guide others. Here’s something she posted on her Twitter account early this year:

Look at her, indeed!

Trust yourself, that’s her admonition.

Here’s something I made to honour Rubin.


Rubin delivered the commencement address at UC Berkeley in 1996. Here’s an excerpt from the address.

Science is hard and demanding, but each of you must believe that you can succeed. It may seem unlikely tonight, but there is not one among you who cannot make important, major contributions to the world of science.

She also cautions:

We need senators who have studied physics and representatives who understand ecology.

Two decades on, that word of caution resounds all the more true not just for the US. India too could definitely do better with leaders who understand science.

Hop on over here and be inspired by the poetics in her speech.

I’ll close with the following note from her, urging graduates science-ward.

Science is competitive, aggressive, demanding. It is also imaginative, inspiring, uplifting. You can do it, too.

Nothing could be further from the truth. You can do it, too.

Two is not company, and three is no longer a crowd

Man is a social animal, famously asserted Aristotle centuries ago. And this societal leanings of man, has a lot to reveal about him. Writing in a Scientific Reports article published online this week, Katerina V.-A. Johnson and Robin I. M. Dunbar of the University of Oxford provide evidence for pain tolerance in humans being indicative of social network size.

β-endorphin, an opiod peptide, plays a significant role on social bonding in humans. Released from the central nervous system, the peptide has a high affinity for µ-opioid receptors, which are found in the brain. It has previously been shown that upon binding with the µ-opioid receptors, β-endorphin induces a sense of well being in the organism. Interestingly, naltrexone, a µ-opioid antagonist when administered in humans, resulted in reduced social bonding.

β-endorphin is a powerful analgesic than morphine. The primary hypothesis tested in this paper is whether pain tolerance predicts social network size. Since β-endorphin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, its levels can be detected only by sampling the cerebrospinal fluid via a lumbar puncture, and the µ-opioid system study necessitates a PET scan. This study, however, makes use of a non-invasive test to determine the pain tolerance. Participants in this study were put through the wall sit test. This test entails squatting against the wall with a straight back, with knees at 90°. Participants were required to hold this position for as long as they could, and the corresponding time was then noted. Participants also filled up a questionnaire pertaining to their social network.

The study found that pain tolerance predicts the size of an individual’s outer network layer (members in the network with whom one is in contact with at least monthly, but less frequently than once a week). The analysis revealed that individuals with higher stress levels had a smaller social network size.

A thought popped up as I was reading the article: what about creative individuals (writers, musicians etc.) who lead secluded lives? What about introverts who naturally shy away from interaction with others? And what about those afflicted with depression? Are there any similar studies carried out on them? Though it makes sense to say that the results from this study could well be applied to them (smaller social network size), but at least in the last case, there should be other neurological factors coming into play. This definitely seems worth reading more on.

A case can definitely be made about the quality of interactions in a person’s life as opposed to the number of her “friends”. Where’s the heft in the harried messages exchanged on WhatsApp or liking a post on someone’s facebook wall, as opposed to a real, heartfelt conversation with someone? Surely, this isn’t just philosophy’s domain.