As the world mourned the staggering concentration of musical talent lost in 2016, physicists have been holding their own commemoration. Vera Rubin's name is barely known outside the scientific community, but her discovery of dark matter was one of the major scientific breakthroughs of the late 20th century. Many people are questioning how and why she never came to be awarded the Nobel Prize.
Since her death on Christmas Day, the astronomical community has been praising her contribution and mourning her passing, with Twitter rich with comments from people Rubin inspired.
Professor Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928 – December 25, 2016) was working at the Carnegie Institute in the 1970s when she and colleague Kent Ford noticed the outer edges of the Andromeda galaxy were rotating at the same speed as stars near the center. What became known as the Rubin-Ford effect was subsequently confirmed in many other galaxies, including our own.
This appeared to violate Newton's laws of motion, under which objects far from a center of mass rotate more slowly than those closer in. A galaxy with such fast-moving outer reaches should rapidly fly apart. Rubin's explanation, that galaxies were being held together by “dark matter”, faced considerable resistance, but is now overwhelmingly accepted among scientists.
Rubin's work revealed that there is far more of this dark matter – material that interacts gravitationally but is hard to detect in other ways – than the ordinary matter with which we are familiar.
The subsequent quest to understand the composition of dark matter has been a long one, and we appear to be only part of the way to an answer.
Since dark matter has been one of the major cosmological discoveries of the last fifty years, the fact that Rubin was never awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in recognition of her work has drawn considerable attention. The subsequent, and still occasionally questioned, discovery of dark energy won the 2011 prize, yet Rubin's more foundational work was passed over. The fact that no woman has won the physics prize for more than 50 years has drawn considerable criticism, and Rubin was possibly the most deserving non-recipient.
Nevertheless, she was honored with a host of other prizes and medals, although none brought a fraction of the public awareness the Nobel carries with it.
In her later years Rubin, who was denied the opportunity to complete a graduate degree in astronomy at Princeton because she was a woman, devoted much of her energy to supporting other women in science, particularly in her own field of astronomy.
Her advice, issued in a tweet earlier this year, has inspired more than a few, interpreted both literally and metaphorically.
"Don't shoot for the stars, we already know what's there. Shoot for the space in between because that's where the real mystery lies."