In 1965, after a stint as a professor at Georgetown, Rubin began her work at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington, D.C., where she met astronomer Kent Ford and his spectacular spectrometer, which was more sensitive than any other at the time.
A spectrometer takes light and splits it up into its constituent wavelengths. Instead of just showing that a fluorescent bulb glows white, for instance, it would show how much of that light is blue and how much yellow, and which specific wavelengths of blue and yellow. Ford’s spectrometer stood out from others at the time because it employed state-of-the-art photomultipliers that let researchers study small regions of galaxies, and not simply the entire objects.
With this device, Ford and Rubin decided to look at quasars — distant galaxies with dynamic, supermassive black holes at their centers. But this was competitive work: Quasars had just been discovered in 1963, and their identity was in those days a mystery that everyone wanted to solve. Rubin and Ford didn’t have their own telescope and had to request time on the world-class instruments that astronomers who worked directly for the observatories could access all the time. Rubin didn’t like the competition.
“After about a year or two, it was very, very clear to me that that was not the way I wanted to work,” she told Alan Lightman in another American Institute of Physics oral history interview. “I decided to pick a problem that I could go observing and make headway on, hopefully a problem that people would be interested in, but not so interested [in] that anyone would bother me before I was done.”
Rubin and Ford chose to focus on the nearby Andromeda Galaxy (M31). It represented a return to Rubin’s interest in galaxy dynamics. “People had inferred what galaxy rotations must be like,” said Rubin, “but no one had really made a detailed study to show that that was so.” Now, because of Ford’s out-of-this-world spectrograph, they could turn the inferences into observations.
When they pointed the telescope at M31, they expected to see it rotate like the solar system does: Objects closer to the center move faster than ones toward the edge. Mass causes gravity, which determines the speed of rotation. Since most of the stars, dust, and gas — and therefore gravity — is clustered in the middle of galaxies, the stuff on the periphery shouldn’t feel much pull. They concentrated their observations on Hydrogen-II (HII) regions — areas of ionized hydrogen gas where stars have recently formed — at different distances from the galaxy’s center. But no matter how far out they looked, the HII regions seemed to be moving at the same speed. They weren’t slowing down.
“We kept going farther and farther out and had some disappointment that we never saw anything,” says Ford. “I do remember my puzzling at the end of the first couple of nights that the spectra were all so straight,” said Rubin, referring to the unchanging speed of the various HII regions.
They didn’t know what, if anything, it meant yet.
The project took years and involved treks westward to telescopes. Ford recalls flying to Flagstaff, Arizona, dragging the spectrograph from the closet, working for a few nights at Lowell, and then throwing the instrument into a Suburban so they could drive it to Kitt Peak. “We both thought we were better at guiding the telescope,” he says. They raced each other to be first to the eyepiece.
The data came out on punch cards, which Rubin spent hours analyzing in a cubbyhole beneath a set of stairs. They all showed the same thing.
Rubin and Ford moved on from M31 to test other galaxies and their rotation curves. Like an obsessive artist, each painted the same picture. Although the result contradicted theory, and although they didn’t understand what it meant, no one doubted their data. “All you had to do was show them a picture of the spectrum,” Rubin told Lightman. “It just piled up too fast. Soon there were 20, then 40, then 60 rotation curves, and they were all flat.”
A dark answer
Dark matter existed as a concept, first proposed by astronomers like Jan Oort in 1932 and Fritz Zwicky in 1933, who also noticed discrepancies in how much mass astronomers could see and how much physics implied should be present. But few paid their work any attention, writing their research off as little more than cosmological oddities. And no one had bagged such solid evidence of it before. And because no one had predicted what dark matter’s existence might mean for galaxy dynamics, Rubin and Ford initially didn’t recognize the meaning of their flat rotation curves.
“Months were taken up in trying to understand what I was looking at,” Rubin told journalist Maria Popova. “One day I just decided that I had to understand what this complexity was that I was looking at, and I made sketches on a piece of paper, and suddenly I understood it all.”
If a halo of dark matter graced each galaxy, she realized, the mass would be spread throughout the galaxy, rather than concentrating in the center. The gravitational force — and the orbital speed — would be similar throughout.
Rubin and Ford had discovered the unseeable stuff that influences not only how galaxies move, but how the universe came to be and what it will become. “My entire education highlighted how fundamental dark matter is to our current understanding of astrophysics,” says Levesque, “and it’s hard for me to imagine the field or the universe without it.”
Within a few years of the M31 observations, physicists like Jeremiah Ostriker and James Peebles provided the theoretical framework to support what Rubin and Ford had already shown, and dark matter settled firmly into its celebrated place in the universe.
In more recent years, the Planck satellite measured the dark matter content of the universe by looking at the cosmic microwave background, the radiation left over from the Big Bang. The clumps of matter in this baby picture of the universe evolved into the galaxy superclusters we see today, and it was dark matter that clumped first and drew the regular matter together.
Data from galaxy clusters now also confirms dark matter and helps scientists measure how much of it exists within a given group — a modern echo of Zwicky’s almost forgotten work. When light from more distant sources passes near a cluster, the gravity — from the cluster’s huge mass — bends the light like a lens.
The amount of bending can reveal the amount of dark matter.
No matter which way or where scientists measure Rubin’s discovery, it’s huge.
And while no one knows what all the dark matter is, scientists have discovered that some small fraction of it is made of neutrinos — tiny, fast-moving particles that don’t really interact with normal matter. Measurements from the cosmic microwave background, like those being taken by experiments called POLARBEAR in Chile and BICEP2 and BICEP3 in Antarctica, will help pin down how many neutrinos are streaming through the universe and how much of the dark matter they make up.
Some setups, like the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy and the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory in South Dakota, are trying to detect dark matter particles directly, when they crash into atoms in cryogenically cooled tanks filled with liquefied noble gases. So far, they haven’t managed to capture a dark matter particle in action. But researchers are taking dark matter — whatever it is — into account when they think about how the universe evolves.
The Nobel committee may overlook Rubin, passing by her as if they can’t see what all of astrophysics feels. But that won’t hurt her legacy, says Levesque: It will hurt the legacy of the Nobel itself. “It would then permanently lack any recognition of such groundbreaking work,” Levesque says.
Rubin herself has never spoken about how she deserves a Nobel Prize. She simply continued her scientific work until recently, all the while influencing the origins, evolutions, and fates of other scientists. “If they didn’t get a job or they didn’t get a paper published, she would cheer people up,” says Bahcall. “She kept telling her story about how there are ups and downs and you stick with it and keep doing what you love doing.”
Rubin, herself, loves trying to understand the universe, and in doing so, she has changed everyone’s understanding of it. That carries more weight than some medal from Sweden. But let Sweden recognize that for what it is: worthy of a prize.