In the 1970s, Vera Rubin and her colleague, Kent Ford, discovered the first direct evidence of dark matter while working at the Carnegie Institution in Washington. Their discovery revolutionized astronomy and provided evidence to back up the long suspected claim that there is more to our universe than meets the eye.
Dark matter is assumed to make up over 90 percent of the matter in the universe and is made up of neutrinos which are small, fast-moving particles that do not interact with regular matter.
While studying galaxies’ rotation, Rubin and Ford noticed that material at the edge of a galaxy was rotating at the same speed as the matter in the center, an observation that contradicted laws of physics. This discovery led them to realize the existence of invisible matter, dark matter, causing gas to spread through the galaxy and allow the edges to rotate at the same speed as the center.
Astronomers like Emily Levesque from the University of Washington believe that Rubin’s contributions “utterly revolutionized our concept of the universe and our entire field” and should be celebrated.
Despite overwhelming acknowledgement from her colleagues, Rubin was never considered for the Nobel prize in physics, an honor that would match the significance of her discovery.
The Nobel committee has received backlash and scrutiny for their failure to recognize Rubin for the prize that is designated for “the most important discovery within the field of physics”, a title fitting for her study of dark matter.
In the past 53 years, no woman has been awarded the Nobel prize in physics and many are calling this a sever injustice, especially considering the incredible contributions of Rubin and her colleagues. The prize, as is true of many awards, is rarely awarded solely on merit and the system through which candidates are selected is heavily based on factors similar to popularity contests.
Vera Rubin, who passed away in Princeton, New Jersey on December 26th at the age of 88, is no longer eligible to be awarded the prize as it is not awarded posthumously.
In an interview conducted in 1990 with Discover Magazine, Rubin said that “if astronomers are still using my data years from now, that’s my greatest compliment.” Her contributions to the fields of astronomy and physics are truly monumental and will indeed change the fields forever.
Top photo by European Southern Observatory CC BY 2.0
Lauren Leising is a science intern and a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia.