Many felt she’d been deserving of a Nobel Prize for her work, but she was overlooked by the committee
Vera Rubin, the US astronomer who proved the existence of dark matter in the universe, while struggling to make an impact in a domain ruled by men, died on Christmas Day in Princeton, New Jersey. According to a statement put out by one of her children, Rubin had been suffering from dementia and died of natural causes.
‘A giant has passed,’ wrote astrobiologist David Grinspoon on Twitter.
Born in Philadelphia in 1928, Rubin’s observations and findings ended up revolutionising the way the scientific community measured and understood the universe. She studied the rotation of more than 200 galaxies, and in 1974 discovered that the stars at the edge of the galaxy moved at the same speed as those nearer the interior.
Her discovery challenged the assumptions upon which astronomy had been based, since up until this point it had been assumed that stars further from the centre must move more slowly. Reconciling her findings with Newton’s laws of gravity, Rubin hypothesised that unseen matter must be influencing galactic rotation. And thus, the existence of dark matter – which had until then been no more than a theory – was confirmed. This mysterious invisible matter is hypothesised to comprise approximately 27% of the mass and energy in the observable universe.
Rubin’s decades of work, which saw some of the most significant breakthroughs in astronomy of the 20th century, caused her name to come up frequently as a possible contender for the Nobel Prize, but she was never chosen.
Some attribute this to the sexist bias of the Nobel committee. 99% of those awarded the Nobel Prize for physics, since its inception, have been men. The only women to have been awarded it are Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert, although Goeppert shared her award with two men.
‘The will of Alfred Nobel, the founder of the prizes, 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,’ astronomer Emily Levesque told Astronomy Magazine in June.
Ruben found evidence of the then theoretical dark matter, a dense and invisible mass that exerted force.
Sadly, being overlooked for the Nobel was not the only instance of discrimination that Rubin had to suffer during her long career. It took a long time before her male colleagues began to take her observations seriously. She was prevented from doing her PHD at Princeton, being told that women were not allowed in the university’s graduate astronomy programme. This was a setback for Rubin, but she didn’t give up.
She went instead to Georgetown University, where she earned her PHD while bringing up two children. ‘I worked for almost all of my early career as a part-time person so that I could be home by 3 o’clock. It was almost overwhelming. I did a lot of my work at home,’ she told Discover in 2002.
In 1964, she became the first woman to be granted authorisation to use the Palomar Observatory in Southern California. She discovered upon arrival that there was no bathroom for women. So, she took a piece of paper, cut out a skirt shape, and stuck it on the drawing of a little man on the door to one of the bathrooms.
During her lifetime, Vera Rubin published more than 100 scientific articles, eventually being admitted to scientific institutions and organisations, including the National Academy of Sciences. She was also awarded the National Medal of Science. She never stopped looking up at the stars.
On Sunday – Christmas Day – the world lost one very bright star. The girl who made her first telescope out of cardboard grew into a brilliant astronomer who transformed the way we comprehend the universe. She may never look through a telescope again, but her legacy will undoubtedly endure. ‘Fame is fleeting,’ Rubin said in 1990. ‘My numbers mean more to me than my name. If astronomers are still using my data years from now, that’s my greatest compliment.’