Few people have heard of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979), yet her dissertation was hailed as “the most brilliant PHD thesis ever written in astronomy,“ according to Jeremy Knowles, Harvard‘s Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. She is the most famous astronomer you most probably have never heard of. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin discovered what the stars are mostly made of.
Harvard celebrated her accomplishments in February 2002 by adding her portrait to the Faculty Room in University Hall. Nobel Laureate Dudley R. Herschbach, Baird Professor of Science, and his wife, Associate Dean of the College, Georgene Botyas Herschbach, commissioned the oil painting. For years, Herschbach had argued that there were too few women on the faculty, and too little recognition for the few there were. In the winter of 2002, there was only one other painting of a woman, the historian Helen Maud Cam.
Jeremy Knowles quoted an undergraduate’s wry assessment, “Every high school student knows that Newton discovered gravity, that Darwin discovered evolution, even that Einstein discovered relativity. But when it comes to the composition of our universe, the textbooks simply say that the most prevalent element in the universe is hydrogen. And no one ever wonders how we know.”
Cecilia Payne was an American astronomer of English origin who discovered the true physical constitution of the universe. She found that hydrogen is a million times more abundant than other elements. According to astronomer Owen Gingerich, in her 1925 dissertation she showed that stars are “all essentially of the same composition.” At the time, however, she distrusted her own discovery.
Her findings that stars are made almost entirely of hydrogen and helium went against the science of the time. Princeton astronomer Henry Norris Russell wrote to her that, “It is clearly impossible that hydrogen should be a million times more abundant than the metals.” When he discovered four years later that she was right, he took the credit for the discovery.
Cecilia came to the United States at the encouragement of the director of the Harvard Observatory in 1923. At that time, Harvard’s Physics department would not have accepted a female graduate student. But the faculty committee that awarded her PhD created a department of Astronomy.
After her degree, “she lectured in the astronomy department, but her lectures were not listed in the course catalogue,” Knowles said. “She directed graduate research without status; she had no research leaves; and her small salary was categorised by the department under ‘equipment.’ And yet she survived and flourished. “It was a case,” she said, “not of survival of the fittest, but of the most doggedly persistent.”
Her years in England
Harvard Magazine reports: “English-born Cecilia Helena Payne early on displayed a relentless desire to learn.” Sadly, her ambitions were often hindered by the stereotypes of the time.“ She once asked a London bookbinder to put a fake cover on the Apology and inscribe “Holy Bible” on the spine, so her teachers would think she was working on her religious studies instead of reading Plato. (The bookbinder refused.) That attitude got her expelled from her Catholic school a year shy of college. Luckily for science, she was accepted to the demanding St Paul’s School for Girls in London. The moment she walked through the door, she said to herself, “I shall never be lonely again. Now I can think about science!” After a wild year of study—mechanics, Newtonian equations of motion, thermodynamics, astronomy—she was accepted to Cambridge.”
In its first 700 years, Cambridge was strictly male. When women started talking about attending a geology course, the professor pronounced them “nasty forward minxes.” When Cecilia Payne enrolled in 1919 at Newnham, one of the two women’s colleges, she met restrictions. She had to comply with the tradition that men studied mathematics and women botany.
However, an event changed the course of her life. Cecilia heard Arthur Eddington, head of the Cambridge Observatory, lecture on his recent expedition to photograph a solar eclipse. This expedition had proved Einstein’s theory of relativity. Payne was only one of four women in the audience. After the lecture she raced back to her room to transcribe the lecture word-for-word into a notebook. “For three nights, I think, I did not sleep,” she recalled. “My world had been so shaken that I experienced something like a nervous breakdown.”
She changed her major to physics, with all the astronomy she could study on the side. It was hard work as she bicycled to the Cavendish Laboratory in a full-length dress. She had to wear a hat which was required to enter town and, as a woman, had to sit in the front row. The lab’s director, Nobel laureate Ernest Rutherford, would look directly at her and begin each lecture with, “Ladies and gentlemen.” She recalled that “all the boys regularly greeted this witticism with thunderous applause…and at every lecture I wished I could sink into the earth.”
Fellowship at Harvard College Observatory
After graduating, she was unable to get an astronomy job in England. When she applied for a fellowship at the Harvard College Observatory, Harlow Shapley, the director offered her a stipend. Arriving in 1923, she found stellar data, etched into thousands of glass plates. They had been compiled by the observatories hard-working women who over 40 years, made up a giant jigsaw puzzle waiting for the right person to fit it together. It was while examining these through a jeweller’s magnifying glass that Payne discovered what centuries of astronomers had yearned for: to determine what stars were made of.
She worked tirelessly in the observatory for poor pay, taken from Shapley’s equipment budget. And although she taught on numerous astronomy courses, her name was not mentioned in the course catalogue. Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell had declared that, because she was a woman, “Miss Payne should never have a position in the university” as long as he was in office.
Cecilia’s personal life
Cecilia visited Germany in 1933 and met the Russian astronomer and political exile Sergei Gaposchkin, and they married two years later. She persuaded him to leave Nazi Germany to come to the US where she got him a job. She and her husband were members of the First Unitarian Parish in Lexington where she taught 9 – 12-year-olds in the Sunday school. Her daughter Katherine Haramundanis tells a story about her mother donning heavy woollen slacks and walking more than three miles one bitterly cold winter morning when the family car would not start. The story reveals a great deal about her character. In her autobiography she described her attitude in the face of slow promotions and low pay: “I simply went on plodding, rewarded by the beauty of the scenery, towards an unexpected goal.”
First woman professor
Through all the disadvantages of womanhood of the time, Cecilia persevered. On 21 June 1956, The New York Times reported that “Harvard University announced today the appointment of Dr Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin as Professor of Astronomy. She is the first woman to attain full professorship at Harvard through regular faculty promotion.”
So, whenever we look up at the stars twinkling in the night sky, let’s remember that it was a very exceptional woman who gave us the knowledge of the true constitution of our universe.