Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Vera Rubin: Nobel MCPs

Lisa Randall, writing in the NYT, on why Vera Rubin deserved a Nobel Prize. Rubin was not the only deserving woman who was denied the prize. Physics remains one of the most male dominated professions, but there are several other women who seem to have been systematically overlooked. Besides those mentioned by Randall, Lise Meitner and Jocelyn Bell come to mind.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — As we look back on 2016, and perhaps fret about 2017, we can take some solace in the remarkable things we know and continue to learn about the universe. In addition to a better understanding of the 5 percent of matter that has been well studied and understood, scientists are unlocking mysteries about the rest — 25 percent of it dark matter, and the remaining 70 percent dark energy.

Dark matter interacts gravitationally the way that ordinary matter does — clumping into galaxies and galaxy clusters, for example — but we call it “dark” because it doesn’t interact, in any perceptible way, with light. So 85 percent of the matter in the universe is not familiar matter. It is not made up of atoms and doesn’t carry an electric charge.

Observations in the 1980s presented convincing evidence of dark matter, opening a vast field of scientific work. Of all the great advances in physics during the 20th century, surely this one should rank near the top, making it well deserving of the world’s pre-eminent award in the field, the Nobel Prize. Yet to this date none has been awarded, and may never be, because the scientist most often attributed with establishing its existence, Vera Rubin, died on Christmas Day.

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The elephant in the room is gender. Dr. Rubin was not alone in having been overlooked for the Nobel. Every major discovery in the Standard Model of particle physics, perhaps the crowning achievement of 20th-century physics, was awarded a Nobel, except one. Chien-Shiung Wu, who showed that physical laws distinguish between left and right, was overlooked, even though two of her male colleagues won for developing the theory behind her work and an even more subtle follow-up symmetry violation later won the prize.