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Vera Rubin, whose work helped confirm the existence of dark matter, passed away December 25 at the age of 88.
In the 1960s, Rubin’s interest in how stars orbit their galactic centers led her and colleague Kent Ford to study the Andromeda galaxy, M31, a nearby spiral. The two scientists wanted to determine the distribution of mass in M31 by looking at the orbital speeds of stars and gas at varying distances from the galactic center. They expected the speeds to conform to Newtonian gravitational theory, whereby an object farther from its central mass orbits slower than those closer in. To their surprise, the scientists found that stars far from the center traveled as fast as those near the center.
After observing dozens more galaxies by the 1970s, Rubin and colleagues found that something other than the visible mass was responsible for the stars’ motions. Each spiral galaxy is embedded in a “halo” of dark matter—material that does not emit light and extends beyond the optical galaxy. They found it contains 5 to 10 times as much mass as the luminous galaxy. As a result of Rubin’s groundbreaking work, it has become apparent that more than 90% of the universe is composed of this invisible material. The first inkling that dark matter existed came in 1933 when Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky of Caltech proposed it. But it was not until Rubin’s work that dark matter was confirmed.
Rubin was a top notch astronomer, which is why she was part of this important discovery. She was also an exception, as at the time relatively few women were interested in becoming astronomers. Be prepared, however, for a slew of articles in the next few days focused not about her work and her contributions to science, but focused instead almost entirely on the sexist oppression she had to overcome in the evil sexist male chauvinist society of mid-twentieth-century America.
All those articles will be wrong. While there were certainly obstacles in Rubin’s way because of her sex, they were hardly as bad as it will be made out to be. Worse, this focus on gender and oppression will distract from honoring the passing of a great astronomer. It will also distract from the significance of her discovery, which continues to baffle astronomers a half century later.