FOR years, many have remarked upon the fact that astrophysicist Vera Rubin, whose work convinced the world that dark matter existed, has yet to win a Nobel Prize in physics. So far, only two women have received the prize: Marie Curie, famous for her work on radioactivity, and Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who was awarded for her work on atomic nuclear structure. After Goeppert-Mayer received the Nobel Prize in physics 54 years ago, it never went to another woman ever since.
Over the years, many have speculated that Rubin would finally win the Nobel for her groundbreaking work. Others have even demanded it. Some, like cosmologist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, have called for men to not accept the prize until Rubin receives it. Given the prestige and prize money involved, it was hard to convince male winners to get behind this call.
Vera Rubin died on Christmas Day of last year. Because the Nobel Prize is awarded only to living scientists, Rubin would never be a Nobel Prize winner. The hope of adding another woman to the list of laureates will have to wait at least another year.
Given that about half of people are females, that a rising number of scientists are women, and that so many breakthroughs in recent decades benefited from the work of female scientists, the shortage of women on the list of Nobel Prize winners in physics is a blemish to the prestigious award and can even be seen as an indictment on the scientific community.
The opinion I gave above raises several important questions. First, what were Rubin’s accomplishments anyway? Second, does the Nobel Prize matter at all? Let me address these questions one at a time.
First, Rubin’s work is rightly considered to be a pivotal achievement. Rubin, together with colleague Kent Ford, found the evidence that convinced the scientific community that dark matter existed.
Dark matter is so named because it does not interact with light and is therefore invisible. Because of this, our existing instruments cannot detect it directly. However, its gravitational effects can be measured. Based on these measurements we now know that more than 85 percent of the matter in the universe is in the form of dark matter. The rest, the matter composed of atoms that make up stars, planets, and gas clouds, accounted for around 15 percent.
As with many discoveries in astronomy, Rubin and Ford did not seek out to discover dark matter when they did. Instead, they were measuring how the stars in a galaxy moved to see if the known laws of gravity and motion applied there. What they found was that the motion of galaxies can only be explained if most of its mass is in the form of invisible dark matter.
In a way, Rubin and Ford lead us to the path to discover 85 percent of the stuff in the universe. All this time we have been studying just the 15 percent. We are still on that path; we are yet to fully understand what dark matter really is.
Think about that for a moment. All the matter we can see in all the stars, planets, and gas clouds in the entire universe, all of that is just 15 percent of the matter in the universe. The rest of it is this dark matter. I hope you agree with me that finding evidence for 85 percent of the matter in the universe is a groundbreaking discovery worthy of a prize meant for such work.
Now we go to the second question—does the Nobel Prize matter at all? Isn’t it just a piece of metal, some prestige, and more than a million dollars? Isn’t achievement and recognition by one’s community more important?
Yes, receiving a prize awarded by one committee is not the most important thing, and not receiving it does not negate real scientific achievement.
However, the Nobel Prize counts for something. If it were awarded to a woman, it would count for a lot.
Many scientists who are celebrities in their professional circles remain largely unknown to the broader public until they are recognized with a Nobel Prize. Because of the prestige of the prize, recipients can potentially gain influence beyond the few experts who already know and recognize their achievements.
Throughout her life, Vera Rubin had a powerful impact on women who dreamt of pursuing a career in cosmology and astrophysics. If she received the prize, that impact would have been multiplied, magnified, and expanded beyond her professional circle.
The Nobel Prize is important to the sociology surrounding science. And so we rightly mourn the fact that Rubin died without receiving it. For the sake of the health of the scientific community, let us hope a deserving woman receives the prize sooner rather than later. I’m sure Rubin would be happy for that woman and entire generation of women she will inspire.
Pecier Decierdo is resident physicist and astronomer of The Mind Museum.