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Vera Rubin, who confirmed dark matter, has died at 88

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Vera Rubin didn’t need a Nobel Prize; the Nobels needed her

Vera Rubin next to the Lowell Observatory 72-inch telescope
AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Rubin Collection

Astronomers believe more than 90 percent of the matter in the universe is stuff we can’t see — dark matter. The woman we have to thank for this discovery died yesterday at the age of 88. Her name was Vera Rubin.

The castigation of the Nobel committee has already begun. Why hadn’t Rubin won the prize? (Only the living are eligible; she can’t win now.) Scientists on Twitter howled at the Nobel committee for ignoring her. In fact, no woman has won a Nobel prize in physics for 53 years. Two women, total, have received Nobel prizes in physics: Maria Goeppert-Mayer (for her work on atomic nuclear structure) and Marie Curie.

To understand why many are furious about the Nobel committee’s slight, it helps to know a little more about Rubin. She worked on spiral galaxies, and with another astronomer, Kent Ford, she noticed something unusual about stars: in a spiral galaxy, the stars at the edges spun at the same speed as those in the center. This was far too fast to be explained by the matter we could see tugging on them; the only possible explanation was something invisible. That invisible something is dark matter, which was first theorized by Fritz Zwicky in the 1930s but until Rubin and Ford’s work, had not been proven to exist.

This discovery “utterly revolutionized our concept of the universe and our entire field,” according to University of Washington astronomer Emily Levesque. Levesque, interviewed in Astronomy magazine this year, was arguing in favor of a Nobel for Rubin in June. Rubin and Ford’s work “basically spawned entire subfields within astrophysics and particle physics.” It is considered one of the most significant findings of the 20th century.

Prizes, after all, are awarded unfairly; it’s their nature, a “notoriously chancy business,” as William Gass wrote. This is as true of science prizes as literary ones. A small group of people — notables, naturally — are invited to submit names. To nominate, you must be at least one of the following: a winner of a Nobel Prize in physics; a member of the Nobel committee; a member of the Swedish Academy; a tenured professor at a selected university; or a scientist invited by the committee to submit names. These people are busy and important, and attending to their own careers is enough of a burden. What’s more, to reach their sufficiently notable position, they’ve been in the field a while, accumulating allies and enemies. There are grudges to settle and favorites to be rewarded. No prize jury in any field is likely to reward solely on merit.

Further, the members of the committee who award prizes are doing so as much to maintain the Nobel’s reputation as to send money to deserving recipients. (The Nobel Prize itself is a kind of posthumous PR campaign of Alfred Nobel, who wanted to be remembered for something other than the invention of dynamite.) The Nobel prizes are given to people that the Nobel committee wants to be associated with; the prize basks in the halo of the recipient. All prizes work this way, which is why newly-created awards typically shore up their prestige by bestowing their accolades on the established scientists least in need of them. The Nobel committee overlooked Rubin for years; this slight harms their reputation, not hers. The fact that the committee has awarded exactly two women — and no woman for more than half a century — speaks for itself.

Though Rubin doubtless would have enjoyed the prize money, she ultimately came away with something more substantial: the subfields her work spawned. True, these are less likely to be written about by journalists than the yearly Nobel pick, but they tend to leave a more-enduring legacy. Every scientist knows their intellectual lineage; Rubin, as the matriarch of dark matter, will doubtless be remembered by those who matter most: the people who owe their careers to her discovery. Aristotle has suggested that the recognition and appreciation of those in your field is far more valuable than fame itself; interviewed two decades ago, Rubin seemed to agree.

"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."