A friend to the stars
Name: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin
Fields: Astronomy and astrophysics
Claim to fame: Establishing that the sun is mainly composed of hydrogen
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979) was described by a former student as being “known for her wit, her literary knowledge and for her personal friendships with individual
stars”. Her love of the night sky drove her to overcome discrimination against her as a woman and to make radical claims that would establish her as a pioneering astronomer
An early passion for science
Cecilia Helena Payne was born in Wendover, UK, on 10 May 1900. Her father Edward Payne was a lawyer, historian and musician who had married late in life and died when Cecilia was only four years old. His wife Elena was left widowed with three young children, but she was determined that they should receive a good education.
A theological problem
Cecilia was sent to a religious school which prized divinity far more than science, seeing the two to be at odds. But Bible study and daily visits to church were not what the budding scientist wanted and Cecilia took to faking fainting spells to get out of prayer. She resolved to teach herself the subjects she craved with the help of books. One teacher, however, noticed Cecilia’s desire to learn and set about teaching her botany and chemistry. When she was 17, Cecilia was allowed to transfer to St Paul’s Girls’ School in London, where she was able to concentrate on scientific study.
In 1919, Cecilia went up to the all-female Newnham College, Cambridge to read natural sciences. Her initial interest was in botany, but this soon made way for astronomy. The turning point came when she attended a lecture given by the astrophysicist Arthur Stanley Eddington, in which he described his expedition to Africa to observe a solar eclipse and test Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Cecilia transcribed the address verbatim.
At this time, the University of Cambridge did not grant degrees to women. So, when Cecilia completed her studies in 1922, she left empty-handed.
Having faced such discrimination in the UK, Cecilia decided that more opportunities would be open to her in the United States. She had met Harlow Shapley, the director of the Harvard College Observatory, when he visited Cambridge, and wrote to him about the possibility of studying under him. She arrived in the other Cambridge (Massachusetts) in September 1923.
Shapley encouraged Cecilia to start work on a PhD, even though at that stage the astronomy department did not have a doctorate programme. In only two years, she completed Stellar Atmospheres, which the astronomer Otto Struve would later describe as “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy”.
The work rejected the perceived beliefs about the composition of stars and demonstrated that the overwhelming element in their make-up was hydrogen. The astronomer Henry Norris Russell persuaded Cecilia not to include this conclusion in her thesis, because it was so far-removed from the held view that stars had the same composition as the Earth. Four years later, however, Russell arrived at the same supposition via a different route. Publishing it, he made perfunctory reference to Payne’s work and thus it is he who is often remembered for the discovery.
Not-so star-crossed lovers
After the publication of her thesis, Cecilia moved on to study stars of high luminosity (stars that radiate high levels of energy) in order to learn more about the structure of the Milky Way. Despite her achievements, she was not given an official faculty post and instead worked as Shapley’s assistant. In 1931, Cecilia became an American citizen.
She returned to Europe in 1933 and embarked on a tour of observatories. Whilst visiting Göttingen in Germany, she met fellow astronomer Sergei Gaposchkin, a Russian exile, whose job security was threatened under the new Nazi regime. Cecilia helped him to get visa and a research position at the Harvard Observatory, which brought him to America in November 1933. Not long after that, the pair decided to marry. They went on to have three children: Edward, Katherine and Peter.
Galaxies far, far away
For most of the rest of their lives, Cecilia and Sergei worked together on astronomical problems, though Cecilia was clearly, as the director of the Observatory remarked, “the Gaposchkin”. They focused on variable stars (stars whose brightness changes, when seen from Earth) and, along with their assistants, they made over 1.25 million observations. Expanding their study to include the stars of the Magellanic Clouds, they made another 2 million observations. This data was used to determine the path of stellar evolution, which was described in Cecilia’s books Variable Stars and Galactic Structure (1954) and The Galactic Novae (1957).
Cecilia’s impressive work had not gone unnoticed. In 1938, she was given a faculty position and, in 1956, was made a full professor and head of the astronomy department. This made her the first woman to run a Harvard department. Cecilia had not devoted herself to her work in search of recognition, however, and late in her life she advised young scientists: “Do not undertake a scientific career in quest of fame or money. There are easier and better ways to reach them. Undertake it only if nothing else will satisfy you; for nothing else is probably what you will receive. Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. And if you achieve that reward you will ask no other.”
Having broadened her horizon and that of those around her, Cecilia died on 7 December 1979 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In 1977, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was awarded the highest honour of the American Astronomical Society, the Henry Norris Russell lectureship. In her speech, she said: “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. Nothing can compare with that experience… The reward of the old scientist is the sense of having seen a vague sketch grow into a masterly landscape.” In the course of her career, Cecilia was the first person to see and understand many things, most notably the composition of the sun and the other stars in the universe.
Cecilia wrote a number of books on astronomy and received numerous awards during her lifetime. Whilst still a student, she was made a member of the Royal Astronomical Society and went on to become a member of many more such academies. Her success also served as an incentive to budding female astronomers and Cecilia nurtured the talents of many of them at the Harvard Observatory.