Dark Matter Pioneer Vera Rubin Has Died

Many feel that Rubin's work was worthy of the Nobel Prize in Physics, but she never won.

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Dec 26 2016, 10:13pm

A birds-eye view of the Andromeda Galaxy, which Rubin and Ford observed. Image: NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton, B.F. Williams, and L.C. Johnson (University of Washington), the PHAT team, and R. Gendler

American astronomer Vera Rubin, whose study of the galaxies revealed the existence of dark matter, has died at age 88, according to a report in the Associated Press. She died on Dec. 25 of natural causes, said son Allan Rubin, who spoke to AP.

Dark matter is thought to make up over a quarter of the universe (just five percent is matter we know and understand). Today, teams around the world are racing to find a dark matter particle with various high-tech detectors, and hoping they'll hone in on it soon.

Vera Rubin, second from left. Image: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Rubin never won the Nobel Prize in Physics, an award that many thought she richly deserved. Her name was advanced as a leading contender year after year. (No woman has won that prize in more than five decades.) With her passing, it now looks like Rubin will never win the Nobel, which isn't awarded posthumously, according to tradition.

Her work on dark matter work dates back to the 1970s. With astronomer Kent Ford, she saw that the Andromeda spiral galaxy was rotating strangely: stars far out from its centre moved as quickly as those at the middle, indicating there must be some kind of "dark" mass there, beyond just the visible stars, to account for it. Their work built on a theory of dark matter advanced by astronomer Fritz Zwicky in the 1930s.

"What you see in a spiral galaxy is not what you get," Rubin said.

Read More: New Theory of Gravity Doesn't Need Dark Matter

Today the existence of dark matter is widely accepted, although we've still never detected it. It's believed to be a particle that flows through the universe and right through us all, a great scaffolding across the universe.

Rubin rightfully earned a place as one of the world's most famous scientists, and garnered plenty of awards and acclaim (if not the Nobel). Her work revealed the presence of something mysterious and critical that we still don't understand. As scientists get closer to understanding what dark matter is, Rubin will be remembered for leading the way.

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