nobel prize


Finding Darkness In The Light: How Vera Rubin Changed The Universe

“Instead, the speeds rose rapidly, but then leveled off. As you moved farther away from a galaxy’s core, the stars’ rotation speeds didn’t drop, but rather leveled off to a constant value. The rotation curves, unexpectedly, were flat. Rubin’s work began in the Andromeda galaxy, our closest large, galactic neighbor, but quickly was extended to dozens of galaxies, which all showed the same effects. Today, that number is in the thousands, and our multiwavelength, advanced surveys have shown that it can’t be missing atoms, ions, plasmas, gas, dust, planets or asteroids that account for the mass. Either something is screwy with the laws of gravity on galactic (and larger) scales, or there’s some type of unseen mass in the Universe.”

When you look at a galaxy in the night sky, it’s easy to imagine that it’s just a system of masses like our Solar System, except on a larger scale. Instead of a single, central mass, you have many stars responsible for the galaxy’s gravitational pull. The stars revolving around the galactic center feel the tug from all the other stars and orbit accordingly, with the inner stars orbiting quickly and the outermost ones – the ones most distant from the gravitational sources – orbiting more slowly, just like the planets. At least, that’s what you’d expect. But when the techniques and the technologies for measuring this finally came to fruition, the result was a colossal surprise: the stars in a galaxy didn’t determine the galaxy’s mass or rotation properties. In fact, if you went out and measured the gas, dust, plasma, planets and everything else we can observe in the galaxy, they don’t explain it either. Something unseen and invisible was influencing the way galaxies behave.

On Sunday night, Vera Rubin passed away at age 88. Here was her most titanic, Universe-changing contribution to the enterprise of science.

Gertrude B. Elion (1918-1999) was one of the recipients of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Throughout her career she developed a variety of new drugs, including the AIDS treatment AZT, as well as azathioprine, the first immunosuppressive drug.

Because of gender bias, she found it very difficult to obtain work despite two degrees in chemistry, and began as a food quality supervisor for supermarkets. Eventually she obtained a research position with a pharmaceutical company in New York, and went on to collaborate with the National Cancer Institute and the World Health Organization.

Marie Curie (1867-1934) was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in any category. She achieved this first in 1903, when she won the Prize in Physics, and then again in 1911 for Chemistry. She therefore became the first and only woman to win the Nobel twice, and the only person to receive it for two different sciences.

The research she conducted on radioactivity was pioneering in the field, and included the actual coining of the term, and the discovery of two new elements, polonium and radium. She was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris from 1900 onward. Initially, the committee only wanted to award the 1903 Prize to her husband, Pierre, but they received the award jointly after his complaint in regards to the situation.

Ava Helen Pauling (1903-1981) was a peace activist involved in numerous causes, particularly concerning the rights of women and minorities, as well as international peace. She introduced her husband, Linus Pauling, to the field of peace studies, for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1962.

She studied home economics and chemistry, and went on to work as a laboratory assistant at the California Institute of Technology. She was a member of multiple women’s rights groups, and helped organize the “Women’s Peace March” in Europe. She also campaigned heavily for nuclear disarmament, which eventually led to the end of above-ground testing of nuclear weapons.


Vera Rubin, an astronomer who proved the existence of dark matter, one of the fundamental principles in the study of the universe, but who battled sex discrimination throughout her career, died Dec. 25 at an assisted living facility in Princeton, N.J. She was 88. 

“The existence of dark matter has utterly revolutionized our concept of the universe and our entire field,” University of Washington astronomer Emily Levesque told Astronomy magazine this year. “The ongoing effort to understand the role of dark matter has basically spawned entire subfields within astrophysics and particle physics.”

For years she was considered a leading contender for the Nobel Prize, but the award never came. Many attributed the oversight to gender bias among male scientists and prize committees.

She struggled to gain admittance to leading observatories. In 1964, she became the first woman to receive formal approval to use the Palomar Observatory in Southern California.
When she arrived, she discovered that it did not have a women’s restroom.
“She went to her room, she cut up paper into a skirt image, and she stuck it on the little person image on the door of the bathroom. She said, ‘There you go; now you have a ladies’ room.’ ”

“I think the question is, are there women and have there been women who want to do science and could be doing great science, but they never really got the opportunity?”

“So important is this dark matter to our understanding of the size, shape, and ultimate fate of the universe, that the search for it will very likely dominate astronomy for the next few decades.”