Cecilia Payne (1900 – 1979)
The stars I see twinkling at night on the few occasions they are not hidden by clouds are a constant source of wonderment to me. Those of a more enquiring mind might wonder what they are made of and a few, a very few, would take the trouble to find out. One such is the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, the British-born astronomer and astrophysicist, Cecilia Payne.
But her contribution to our understanding of stars which should have assured her a stellar career was for decades hidden under the penumbra of male chauvinism that pertained in the groves of academe at the time. Cecilia was a bit of a brain-box and read botany, physics and chemistry at Newnham College in Cambridge in the early 1920s but she did not get a degree as the University only started awarding them to the fairer sex in 1948. She did, however, listen to a lecture by Arthur Eddington which sparked her nascent interest in astronomy.
Winning a scholarship, Cecilia moved to the United States in 1923 and enrolled in the graduate programme run by Harvard College Observatory, specifically established to encourage women to study there. She was encouraged to write a doctoral dissertation and in 1925 Cecilia became the first woman to receive a PhD from Radcliffe College, which is now part of Harvard, for her dissertation, entitled A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars.
And some contribution, it was too.
I will not bore you with the details – the precise findings and analytical processes that she used go way above my head – but in essence Cecilia concluded that whilst the stars shared the same elements to be found in the Earth, hydrogen, by a factor of one million, and to a degree helium was the most abundant element in stars and by extension the Universe. Later astronomers were to call her work “undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy”. But Cecilia’s problem was that she had made her discovery in 1925 and it flew against the then received wisdom that the composition of sun and the stars was no different from that of the Earth.
The villain of the piece, Henry Norris Russell of Princeton University, now enters our story. He was assigned the task of reviewing Cecilia’s dissertation. Because the findings were contrary to the commonly accepted theories he declared them “clearly impossible” and Cecilia, bowing to the pressure exerted by the eminent professor, amended her conclusions and stated that the calculated abundances of hydrogen and helium were “almost certainly not real.”
But something about Payne’s conclusions intrigued Russell and he conducted his own investigations, concluding four years later in 1929, in a short paper, that the principal constituent of the sun and starts was hydrogen. Russell magnanimously acknowledged Payne’s contribution but in popular and academic circles he was recognised as the person who established this ground-breaking fact.
Cecilia spent most of her career studying stars but was forced by the conventions of the time to accept low paid, low grade academic positions. It was only in 1956 that she was able to break through the glass ceiling when she was appointed a professor at Harvard.
To add to the irony, Cecilia was awarded the Henry Norris Russell Prize for her contributions to astronomy in 1976. She was typically phlegmatic, commenting at the time, “the reward of the young scientist is the emotional thrill of being the first person in the history of the world to see something or to understand something.”
For discovering the composition of the sun and stars and being ignored, Cecilia, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.
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For more enquiring minds, try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone