Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Starwoman

Vera Rubin died on the night of Christmas Day, 2016. Her lights went out at the ripe old age of 88 and she never won a Nobel Prize.

Hardly surprising, you might think, given that not many people win the Nobel Prize. So she was a woman? Well, a lot of men died in 2016 and they didn’t get a Nobel Prize either. Leonard Cohen, for example.

However, Vera Rubin was no ordinary person.  A dedicated wife and mother, she found the time and the energy to become one of the greatest astronomers of her time and probably any other time. In terms of the importance of what she observed, she is up there with Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler and, closer to our time, Edwin Hubble, the astronomer who confirmed that the Universe is expanding. Hubble, better known for the space-based telescope named after him, didn’t win a Nobel Prize either, as he died before the Nobel Committee conceded that Astronomy was actually a branch of Physics and so he hadn’t qualified for the prize.

So at least Mrs Rubin is in good company. 

And anyway, she won just about every other accolade going in physics and astronomy, including the 1995 Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal, the first woman to do so since Caroline Lucretia Herschel in 1828. However, back in the 1970s, Vera Rubin had to look for a subject where she wouldn’t be elbowed out of the limelight by her predominantly male colleagues. At the time, the astronomy herd was obsessed with black holes, so Vera decided to steer clear of the subject. She settled on an intelligent choice, the biggest known objects of all, galaxies, and used modern technology to take a closer look at some of their features. Specifically, she studied galaxy rotation curves, or rather the distribution of rotation speeds of their outer reaches. Pretty soon she came up with her Cosmic rattling result: the stars and the gas in the outer reaches of any galaxies she observed were rotating much faster than expected on the basis of the observable mass of these galaxies, and so should have been flying off into the surrounding void. But they weren’t, so either Einstein and Newton were wrong about a universal law of gravitation, or else what you see is NOT all there is. I.e., dark matter doesn’t just exist, everywhere, but a lot of it exists.

Dark Matter (I prefer the term in German, dunkle materie, which strikes me as more colourful) is an idea that dates back to the likes of Lord Kelvin and Henri Poincaré at the beginning of the 20th Century. Evidence of dark matter had already been observed in 1932 by the astronomer Jan Oort within the Milky Way, i.e., our very own home galaxy. What Vera Rubin did was confirm this result in galaxies beyond our own, as distant and far away as you cared to look. As a result, she showed that Dark Matter cannot be explained away by some statistical glitch in the movement of stars in our galaxy. It is a momentous achievement, but it was not enough to win her the Nobel.

Why not? You might ask. I certainly do and it is pretty hard to come up with a plausible explanation.

The Nobel Committee is a conservative institution, but it is not above the odd publicity stunt. The reputation of the prizes they dish out on a yearly basis are waning, so they need to stir things up. In this respect, Vera Rubin offered them a golden opportunity in our allegedly inclusive times. Her life story is not just one of scientific achievement, it is also one of a triumph against the sexism and prejudice of her time.

She was the first woman to work at Caltech’s Palomar observatory, back in the days when there wasn’t a separate ladies’ toilet. When she attempted to enrol in Princeton’s graduate course, she was told women weren’t accepted. George Gamow, a renowned cosmologist, became her doctoral adviser, but she was not allowed to attend one of his lectures because “wives were not allowed”. When Gamow spoke to her, they had to talk in the lobby because women weren’t allowed in the offices upstairs. The anecdotes of discrimination against her go on and on. Later in her life, Vera Rubin championed women’s place in science and helped many young women to establish their careers in a man’s world. However, not even gender issues and publicity stunts were enough for the Nobel committee either.

So again, why did she not win the Nobel Prize? What, for example, are the criteria for the selection of nominees?

Nobel Prizes in Physics are only awarded if a discovery has “passed the test of time”. Which in the case of the Swedish Academy of Sciences amounts to around twenty years. Live fast and die young, by all means, but don’t expect to win the Nobel, and many big names in Physics who died young did not.

Vera Rubin presented her results on galaxy rotation curves in 1980, ie, 36 years before her death, so well within the Nobel Goldilocks zone. You therefore have to look elsewhere to explain her absence from the Nobel hall of fame.

Dark matter refers to a hypothetical type of matter that is non-luminous, ie, that does not absorb or emit light, radio waves, x-rays or infra red radiation. Observing this “luminous” radiation is what astronomers, most of them male, do for a living. So to be told by a woman that most of what is out there can’t be “seen” in this way knocked them down a peg or two. Rubin’s observations were not exactly welcome ones. Interesting,  but not welcome. Astronomers are human and, if you believe the winner of the 2002 Nobel for Economics, behavioural psychologist Daniel Kahneman, we humans, astronomers included, have a distinct bias towards believing that What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI). Not so, said Vera Rubin’s observations.

Hmmm.

Nominations for a Nobel Prize in Physics are currently obtained by the Nobel Committee by sending out confidential forms to be filled in by previous Nobel laureates. The list of nominations are kept secret for 50 years, so it will be a long time before it will be known who, if anyone, ever nominated Vera Rubin. As a result, one is left with the evil of idle speculation. It goes, roughly, like this:

Since the Nobel Prize for Physics was first awarded in 1901, only two women have won it, Marie Curie (who also won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry) in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963.  Both are now dead. By comparison, over 350 men have won the prize (up to 3 people can win it every year). In other words, the annointed group that nominates physicists and astronomers for the Nobel Prize in Physics is a bit like a lot of golf clubs: men only.

Is that the answer to my question? Who knows? The fact remains that Vera Rubin did not win the Nobel Prize for Physics.

But prizes aren’t everything, are they? In a life as rich and productive as Vera Rubin’s, they ultimately mean very little. The call from Stockholm never came, but in the astronomical scheme of things, so what? It’s what you do that matters. And who you are. In both regards, Vera Rubin blew our minds.

Well, some of us anyway, albeit at the outer reaches of the anorak scale.

At the other end of the scale, people have spent the last months bemoaning the passing in 2016 of the author of the following lyrics:

There's a starman waiting in the sky
He'd like to come and meet us
But he thinks he'd blow our minds


Me? I wish I had met the starwoman.

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