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.
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.
Here are five things you need to know about Vera Rubin.