Vera Rubin died on 25th December 2016, aged 88. Rubin was an American astronomer who pioneered work on galaxy rotation rates.
In the 1960s and 70s, Rubin and her collogue Kent Ford noted a discrepancy between the predicted angular motion of galaxies and their observed motion, whilst studying galactic rotation curves.
This led Rubin to conclude that some unseen mass must be influencing the rotation of galaxies. As a result, in an attempt to explain the galaxy rotation problem, the theory of dark matter was created. The existence of this ‘invisible mass’ was first theorised by Fritz Zwicky in the 1930s but until Rubin and Ford’s work it had not been proven to exist.
Although initially it was met with skepticism from the scientific community, Rubin’s results have been confirmed over the subsequent decades.
Emily Levesque from the University of Washington said in an interview with Astronomy magazine:
This discovery “utterly revolutionised our concept of the universe and our entire field.”
It is considered one of the most significant results of the 20th century.
However, Rubin never received the Nobel Prize for Physics, although she was frequently mentioned as a candidate for it. It has been 53 years since a women has won a Nobel Prize in Physics, and now that Vera Rubin has passed away, she is no longer eligible. But, we can take some consolation in the fact that Rubin was indifferent to not being nominated for the Nobel Prize.
“Fame is fleeting,” Rubin said in 1990 to Discover magazine. “My numbers mean more to me than my name. If astronomers are still using my data years from now, that’s my greatest compliment.”