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Vera Rubin, the 'Mother of Dark Matter', has died aged 88.

A truly remarkable woman died on Christmas Day, but you’ve probably never heard of her. Vera Rubin wasn’t the kind of woman who wanted much attention. Any notice she gained was incidental to her work work as an astronomer and as far as work goes, hers left a huge impact.

Dr Rubin, 88, died of natural causes on December 25 and left behind a body of work that has greatly improved the understanding of how the universe works. She verified the existence of “dark matter” which progressed scientific understanding of how the universe is managing to expand at such a rapid rate.

Dr Rubin was the first astronomer to verify the existence of “dark matter” and the role it plays in rotation and the expansion of the universe.

Image: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

She studied over 200 galaxies and in particular, the rotation of planets and stars. Previous rules of physics meant the matter in the middle of such formations should rotate faster than matter on the outside of such formations, howerver Dr Rubin found that "dark matter" rotated faster than normal matter.

At first her work was doubted but eventually it was verified. Her work revolutionised both physics and astronomy.

Now scientists know that the universe is made up of 67 per cent dark energy, 27 per cent dark matter and less than five per cent "normal matter" which is planets, stars and gas.

Dark energy, dark matter and normal matter make up the universe as we know it and the reason astrologers study the universe so carefully is because we need to understand what the future of our universe looks like. We know Earth won't last forever and we really might eventually have to move to a different planet, thus the Mars project. We know the universe is continually expanding. Dark matter and dark energy are referred to as such because it can't be seen, which makes it difficult to identify, study and therefore understand how it works.

Image: Carnegie Institution of Washington.
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Thanks to the work of Dr Rubin we now know that dark matter works differently than normal matter. Dark matter doesn't obey the laws of physics that apply to normal matter. Instead dark matter makes stars rotate around galaxies faster and dark energy pushes out against gravity, making the universe expand faster and faster.

At least, that's the theory.

Dr Rubin says she became 'entranced by astronomy' at the age of 10, watching stars outside her bedroom window. In 1948 Dr Rubin became the first woman to graduate from Vassar College with a degree in astronomy and attempted to gain entry into Princeton to further her studies but wasn't successful because women weren't allowed in the graduate astrophysics program. So she earned her masters at Cornell University and a doctorate from Georgetown University in Washington.

Dr Rubin has advocated on behalf of women in science ever since.

Many in the scientific community believe she should have won the Nobel Peace Price during her life. Emily Levesque from the University of Washington told Astronomy Magazine she believes Dr Rubin should have been awarded the prize the founder of the Nobel Peace Price, Alfred Nobel, described the physics prize as recognising the most important discovery within the field of physics.

"If dark matter doesn't fit that description, I don't know what does," Dr Levesque said.

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Still, she won a number of significant scientific awards including the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1996) for "scientific distinction", the National Medal of Science (1993) for "pioneering research programs in observational cosmology and the Adler Planetarium Lifetime Achievement Award. She has also been awarded numerous honorary doctorates.

She was married to physical chemist Robert Rubin for 60 years from 1948 until 2008 when he passed away. Their four children followed in their parent's scientific footsteps, each earning PhDs in science.

Dr Rubin never forgot how difficult it was to achieve her goal of becoming an astronomer and actively encouraged young women to pursue science regardless of how much they may be discouraged and even contacted conferences to lament a lack of diverse speakers.

She once told Women of Science magazine, “Fame is fleeting, my numbers mean more to me than my name. If astronomers are still using my data years from now, that’s my greatest compliment.”

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