REBEL, REBEL: Vera Rubin was overlooked by the Nobel Committee but revered by the rest of us.


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In this new series, we will be spotlighting scientists of the past and present who have gone against the consensus or made discoveries that were trivialized, unnoticed, or outright ignored by their peers. Eventually, these pioneers’ contributions were celebrated by the scientific community.

Vera Rubin was a pioneering astrophysicist who made groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of the universe. Born in 1928 in Philadelphia, Rubin began her career in the early 1950s, at a time when very few women were pursuing careers in science. Despite facing discrimination and bias throughout her career, Rubin persisted in her pursuit of knowledge and made significant discoveries that have had a lasting impact on the field of astrophysics.

One of Rubin’s most notable contributions was her work on dark matter. In the 1970s, Rubin and her colleague, Kent Ford, conducted a series of observations of galaxy rotation curves, which showed that the outer regions of galaxies were rotating at the same speed as the inner regions. This contradicted the predictions of the prevailing theory of galaxy formation, which stated that the outer regions of galaxies should rotate more slowly than the inner regions. Rubin and Ford’s observations suggested that there was a significant amount of unseen matter in galaxies, which they dubbed “dark matter.”

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Rubin’s work on dark matter was initially met with skepticism, but it ultimately led to a revolution in our understanding of the universe. Today, scientists believe that dark matter makes up about 85% of the universe’s total matter, and Rubin’s work is widely considered to be one of the most important discoveries in the field of astrophysics.

This is the way Astronomy Magazine tells it:

In the late 1970s, Vera Rubin and Kent Ford of the Carnegie Institution of Washington stared, confused, at the punch-card readouts from their observations of the Andromeda Galaxy. The vast spiral seemed to be rotating all wrong. The stuff at the edges was moving just as fast as the stuff near the center, apparently violating Newton’s Laws of Motion (which also govern how the planets move around our Sun). While the explanation for that strange behavior didn’t become clear to Rubin until two years later, these printouts represented the first direct evidence of dark matter.

Scientists now know that dark matter comprises some 84 percent of the universe’s material. Its invisible particles swarm and stream and slam through the whole cosmos. It affects how stars move within galaxies, how galaxies tug on each other, and how all that matter clumped together in the first place. It is to the cosmos like air is to humans: ubiquitous, necessary, unseen but felt. The discovery of this strange substance deserves a Nobel Prize. But, for Rubin, none has come, although she has long been a “people’s choice” and predicted winner.

Emily Levesque, an astronomer at the University of Washington, didn’t mince words when it came to Rubin’s Nobel snub –

“The existence of dark matter has utterly revolutionized our concept of the universe and our entire field; the ongoing effort to understand the role of dark matter has basically spawned entire subfields within astrophysics and particle physics at this point. Alfred Nobel’s will describes the physics prize as recognizing ‘the most important discovery’ within the field of physics. If dark matter doesn’t fit that description, I don’t know what does.”

In addition to her work on dark matter, Rubin also made significant contributions to our understanding of galaxy formation and dynamics. She conducted observations of the large-scale structure of the universe, which showed that galaxies are not distributed randomly, but instead are organized into large clusters and filaments. This work provided key evidence for the theory of cold dark matter, which states that the universe is made up of large concentrations of dark matter that act as the “skeletons” on which galaxies form.

Despite her many scientific achievements, Rubin faced significant discrimination and bias throughout her career. As a woman in a field that was dominated by men, Rubin struggled to get her work recognized and often had to fight for funding and resources. Despite these challenges, Rubin remained steadfast in her pursuit of knowledge and continued to make groundbreaking discoveries throughout her career.

In recognition of her contributions to the field of astrophysics, Rubin received many awards and honors throughout her life. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1993, she was awarded the National Medal of Science, the highest honor for a scientist in the United States.

Vera Rubin’s work has had a profound impact on our understanding of the universe, and her legacy continues to inspire future generations of scientists. Her pioneering research on dark matter and galaxy formation has helped to reshape our understanding of the universe and has opened up new lines of inquiry that are still being explored today. Her determination and perseverance in the face of discrimination and bias serve as an inspiration to all who strive to push the boundaries of human knowledge.

For whatever reason, the Nobel Committee ignored her. She passed away in 2016.

WORDS: Staff.

IMAGE CREDIT: Archives & Special Collections, Vassar College Library.

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