Vera Rubin, Astrophysicist Who Discovered Evidence of Dark Matter, Dies at 88

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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.”

Adam continued:

“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.”

The existence of dark matter had been proposed by Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky in the 1930s, but hadn’t been confirmed until Rubin’s work.

Now it’s believed that more than 90 percent of the universe is composed of dark energy and dark matter — but dark matter remains “invisible” and “mysterious,” NPR’s Rob Stein reports.

In addition to her groundbreaking work on dark matter, Vera Rubin was a pioneering advocate of women in the sciences.

She was passionate about astronomy from the age of 10. Rubin once explained to an interviewer that it’s not like she was planning on breaking into an all-male world.

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SOURCE: NPR, Camila Domonoske