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!

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