The 2015 Nobel Prize for Physics: could it be Vera Rubin?

Just a quick note to point out that the 2015 Nobel Prize for Physics will be announced next Tuesday, 6th October. According to the Nobel Foundation’s website the announcement will be made “no earlier than 11.45am” Swedish time, which is one hour ahead of British Summer Time.

As is the case every year there’s quite a lot of speculation going on about who might garner this year’s prize. There’s a piece in Nature and another in Physics World, to give just two examples. There’s also the annual prediction from Thomson Reuters, which has never to my knowledge been correct (although some of the names they have suggested for a given year have won it in a subsequent year); perhaps they will strike lucky this time round.

For myself, I’ll just say that I think Vera Rubin is conspicuous by her absence from the list of Nobel Physics laureates – her classic work on galactic rotation and the evidence for dark matter in galaxies surely deserves an award, possibly alongside Kent Ford. Most Nobel Prizes are awarded for work done decades before the year of the award; the research in this case was mostly done in the 1970s. I think recognition is long overdue. I’m biased in favour of astronomy, of course, but my fingers will be crossed that Vera Rubin’s time will come on Tuesday!

I’m not going to open a book  – even Ladbrokes stopped taking bets on the Nobel Prize for Physics some years ago! – but I’d be interested to hear opinions through the comments box…


16 Responses to “The 2015 Nobel Prize for Physics: could it be Vera Rubin?”

  1. Phillip Helbig Says:

    Personally, I think Rubin deserves it, but the committee tends to be rather conservative, and the fact that we don’t know what dark matter is might be holding them back.

    • telescoper Says:

      That didn’t stop them with the “accelerating Universe”!

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        True, although I have heard this decision criticized, for precisely this reason. (The Nobel committees are often criticized for making “wrong” decisions, but more often for the peace or perhaps literature prizes.)

        On the other hand, one can say that the cosmological constant has been discovered. If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck. We don’t know what it really “is”, to quote Bill Clinton, but we also don’t know why the gravitational constant (big G) is non-zero. Either both need an explanation, or neither does. Since we know what other kinds of matter are, there is a deficit here regarding dark matter. Maybe we are demanding too much compared to “dark energy” (I term I dislike; Sean Carroll’s “smooth tension” was much better), or too little compared to non-dark matter.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Anton Zeilinger would suit me.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes. Aspect, Zeilinger & Clauser are the other three likely names.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Aspect was first to test Bell inequalities, but to my knowledge he and Clauser did only that whereas Zeilinger is also a pioneer in quantum computing.

  3. Phillip Helbig Says:

    According to the article, in what appears to be a direct quote, Rubin says that she has a preference for MOND over dark matter.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, that may be one reason she’s out of favour with the establishment.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        Really? I might be showing my ignorance here, but this is the first time I’ve read that Rubin might even be interested in MOND, much less prefer it to dark matter.

  4. For GR, how about Irwin Shapiro for proposing and carrying out a 4th test of GR (since named after him). Although now Shapiro delay might seem totally obvious, it took 50 years since inception of GR
    to propose this and nowadays it has been used not just as a tool to test GR but also as an astrophysical tool to measure masses of neutron stars in binary systems.

  5. John Peacock Says:

    I’ve never quite been sure if a DM Nobel is justified for Rubin (surely paired with Ford, her regular collaborator). The problem is that all their work is based on optical rotation curves and so the data inevitably stop just as things are getting interesting. There is a strong case that it’s only 21cm rotation curves to >2 times the optical radius that make the point robustly. Even in 1980, Rubin & Ford say “accurate 21cm velocity mapping beyond the optical image will be crucial in determining the outlying mass distributions for these galaxies”. In contrast, the 21cm work of Bosma in 1978 already allows him to say “The mass models indicate that in the outer parts of a spiral the mass-to-light ratio is higher than in the inner parts. Perhaps a substantial fraction of the mass is not distributed in a disk at all. The ratio of total mass to neutral hydrogen mass tends to remain more or less constant in the outer parts”. That’s rather closer to “there’s DM out there” than any statement I’ve seen in a Rubin-Ford paper (although I’d be happy if some blog reader knows a quote where they do make such a claim prior to 1978).

    • telescoper Says:

      It’s certainly the case that 21cm rotation curves demonstrate most clearly that there’s considerable mass where there’s negligible light, but the Nobel Committee tends to give awards to people who pioneered a field, which I think is a far assessment of Rubin-Ford.

  6. telescoper Says:

    Well, the announcement has just been made, The Nobel Prize for Physics 2015 was awarded jointly to Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald for discovery of neutrino oscillations.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      Good choice. The solar-neutrino problem used to be one of the big unsolved problems of astroparticle physics. I met John Bahcall in 1994 at a conference in Stockholm and asked him what he thought the solution would be: correcting a problem in the experiments, correcting a problem in the theoretical solar models, or new physics. With no hesitation, he replied “new physics”. (Like Witten, Bahcall came to physics relatively late in life and only after having studied other subjects.)

      Were Bahcall still alive, a three-way split with him would have been appropriate.

  7. Vera Rubin will never get the Nobel Prize; she died on Christmas Day 2016.

    • Whenever a famous scientist dies without a Nobel Prize, there are pundits who say that they deserved it, ask why they were looked over, etc. If a famous female scientist dies, in addition most pundits state or at least imply that she was overlooked “because she was a woman”. Unless there is evidence for this accusation, it shouldn’t be made. The Nobel archives are accessible 50 years after the corresponding nomination. 😐

      Sweden is one of the most equal-opportunity societies in the world, and I don’t detect any misogyny among members of the committee.

      Vera Rubin had a long list of awards and honours and is certainly not overlooked in the field. As a feminist, she fought against real discrimination. But not getting a Nobel Prize—many people who “deserve” one never get one—is, without supporting evidence, not evidence of discrimination.

      I think Lawrence Krauss got it right in his obituary for her.

      I’m sure that she would rather be remembered for her important work.

      Of course, the only person to receive two Nobel Prizes in two different sciences was a woman.

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