Friday, October 17, 2014

Grassroots Campaign to get a Physics Nobel for Vera Rubin

Now that the 2014 Nobel Prizes are done, it's time to start looking forward to next year. Why so soon? Because I'm hoping that we can start a grassroots campaign to help Vera Rubin win the physics Nobel in 2015. The nominating process for 2015 began in September and ends in February 2015. So the time to make some noise is now!

Please like the Facebook page lobbying for Vera Rubin's prize next year.

In case you haven't heard of Rubin, she made the first compelling discovery that implies the existence of dark matter. The identity of dark matter is one of the most important questions in modern physics. But thanks to Rubin, we know it's there, and that there's way more of it in the universe than there is of the regular matter we're made of: less than 5% of the mass in the universe made up of regular matter, but more than a quarter of it is dark matter.

That's why Rubin deserves the Noble Prize. And I'm hoping that if enough of us make enough noise about it, we might improve her chances in 2015. (Did I mention that you should like the Facebook page lobbying for Vera Rubin's prize next year?)

"But," you might be saying to yourself, "I can't nominate people for the Physics Nobel."

You're probably right. In order to nominate someone, you have to be designated a "Qualified Nominator." (The list of such folk is available on the Physics Nobel Prize nomination page. Of course, if you happen to be one of the privileged few nominators, PLEASE NOMINATE VERA RUBIN!)

But there's a good chance that you know a Qualified Nominator, or that
you know someone
   who knows someone
       who knows someone
          who knows someone
             who knows a Nominator, thanks to social networks that ensure we're all no more than 5 handshakes away from everyone else in the world. (So, please like the Facebook page lobbying for Vera Rubin's prize next year.)

How did Rubin Do It?

She was precisely measuring the rates that stars revolved around galaxies. If there were no dark matter, we would expect stars farther from the galactic centers for revolve more slowly. But Rubin discovered that all stars orbit their galaxies at about the same rate, once you look out far enough. That suggests that galaxies have about six times more material in them than we would expect. What's more, the mass is distributed very differently from the way the regular (i.e. bright) matter is distributed.

The Bullet Cluster as imaged by the Chandra X-ray Observatory

Some people have suggested that the stars' motions may result from a missing piece in our understanding of gravity. These sorts of ideas are known as Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MoND) theories. This could be the case, except that there are other phenomena that offer evidence of dark matter. One of the most compelling is a colliding pair of galaxies known as the Bullet Cluster. It appears, based on gravitational lensing observations, that when the galaxies collided the center of mass of the galaxies didn't end up where the distribution of stars suggests it should be. That's because the dark matter and bright matter ended up in different places after the collision. That's something that MoND theories can't account for. As far as we know only dark matter can explain it.

Why Should She Win Now?

Well, the folks who discovered the accelerating expansion of the universe, which implies that dark energy exists won the Nobel in physics back in 2011. Rubin's discovery is at least as deserving as theirs.

Also, the prize this year was for uber-practical blue LEDs, last year's was for particle physics (the theory predicting Higgs particle), so it could be time for another cosmological prize.

And let's face it, no one lives forever. Rubin is 86, so the Nobel Committee needs to get on the stick to make sure they don't overlook a scientist responsible for the discovery of 26% of the universe!

What Can You Do? 

In case I haven't mentioned it, you can like the Facebook page lobbying for Vera Rubin's prize next year, share the page with your friends, urge your friends who might be a Qualified Nominators to put her name in the running, nominate Rubin yourself (if you're one of those people), fire up a compelling Kickstarter page to get the word out, write a song singing Rubin's praises . . . I don't know, something, anything. Let's get this show on the road!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I would certainly agree that your father deserved a Nobel for his work. It is unfortunate that it's not awarded posthumously. (My grandfather was in the same situation -- he co-discovered the neutrino, but passed away long before the Nobel was awarded to his collaborator.)

    While it's clear that Zwicky first found dark matter, Rubin's measurements were much more precise and removed all doubt about the existence and quantity of dark matter in galaxies (and the universe).

    If he were alive today, I would be advocating for a joint Nobel. But I think dark matter is such an important discovery that it would be remiss of the Nobel Committee to lose the chance to recognize the most deserving living person associated with it.

    I'm sure your father's work would be prominently highlighted by the Committee if Rubin were to win now. That would bring greater honor and prominence to your father and his work. Failing to award the Prize to Rubin would be a disservice to physics, Rubin, and Frank Zwicky.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Please pardon the mistake on your father's name.

    It's true that Rubin had access to much better technology than your father. So much of science comes down to both capability and timing.

    Your father was right about dark matter, and it's a shame that he suffered the assaults you mention. The best vindication for him I can imagine is a Nobel that would drive home the fact that dark matter is one of the most important topics in modern physics. If that is going to happen, the only potential (i.e. living) recipient that makes sense is Rubin.

    Incidentally, Rubin isn't lobbying for a Nobel as far as I know. I wrote this post on my own because I think it's time to recognize the significance of dark matter with a Nobel.

    I don't know why anyone would object to being associated with Rubin, but I'm sure your father would feature prominently in the Nobel Prize citation. It's hard to imagine a better way to honor him at this time. Otherwise, his connection to dark matter will continue to fade in the public conscience.

  5. The Nobel is generally only awarded to verified phenomena. Higgs didn't receive a Nobel until the Higgs Boson had been identified, almost 50 years after its prediction. Dark Matter has been inferred to explain the way galaxies move and there has been no direct verification of its existence. Imagine if she was awarded the Nobel today and the hypothesis was disproven. I would love for a woman to win the Nobel prize but we can't let our sociological desires override common sense.

  6. I couldn't disagree more. It's true we don't know what dark matter is, but neither do we know what dark energy is. We do know that stars orbit in galaxies as though there is more matter than there should be. This could be accounted for by modifications to gravity, except that gravitational lensing and the mass distribution o f the bullet cluster prove it's dark matter, and not that gravity gets weird at long distances.

    The discovery that dark matter of some kind exists is one of the most important cosmological discoveries ever.

  7. "... something MoND theories can't account for ..." According to Milgrom, the Bullet Cluster does not refute MOND.
    The Bullet Cluster (Milgrom), The MOND pages
    Are gravitational metrologists confused because they have ignored Milgrom's MOND? (Google "kroupa dark matter".) My guess is that gravitational metrologists can provide a precise basis for understanding galactic dynamics and Rubin's results in particular.

  8. It looks to me like he's doing a lot of rationalizing to try to save MOND in light of the Bullet Cluster. Could we have both dark matter and MOND contributing to some degree? Maybe, but I would bet it's a simpler either/or situation, in which case, it has to be dark matter. Milgrom himself admits it can't be just MOND.