Vera Rubin, the groundbreaking astrophysicist who discovered evidence of dark matter, died Sunday night at the age of 88, the Carnegie Institution confirms.
Rubin did much of her revelatory work at Carnegie. The organization’s president calls her a “national treasure.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, Rubin was working with astronomer Kent Ford, studying the behavior of spiral galaxies, when they discovered something entirely unexpected — the stars at the outside of the galaxy were moving as fast as the ones in the middle, which didn’t fit with Newtonian gravitational theory.
The explanation: Dark matter.
Adam Frank, an astrophysicist who writes for NPR’s 13.7 blog, described dark matter by comparing it to a ghost in a horror movie. You can’t see it, he writes — “but you know it’s with you because it messes with the things you can see.”
“It was Vera Rubin’s famous work in the 1970s that showed pretty much all spiral galaxies were spinning way too fast to be accounted for by the gravitational pull of the their ‘luminous’ matter (the stuff we see in a telescope). Rubin and others reasoned there had to be a giant sphere of invisible stuff surrounding the stars in these galaxies, tugging on them and speeding up their orbits around the galaxy’s center.”