P is for Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin Astronomer #AtoZ Challenge
When I first read about this woman, I could hardly believe it!
She was born Cecilia Helena Payne in Wendover, England on May 10th, 1900.
In 1919 she won a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge University, to read botany, physics, and chemistry, where she attended a lecture by Arthur Eddington on an expedition he had made off the coast of Africa to observe and photograph stars near a solar eclipse to test Einstein’s theory of relativity. This sparked her interest in astronomy.
She completed her degree but was not awarded it, as Cambridge did not award degrees to women before 1948 – she did not want to become a teacher, her only option if she remained in the UK, so she needed to obtain a grant to move to the United States.
Cecilia was introduced to Harlow Shapley, the Director of the Harvard College Observatory, who had just begun a graduate program in astronomy, and because of a fellowship to encourage women to study at the observatory, she was able to take up a position there, and left England in 1923.
Harlow Shapley persuaded Cecilia to write a doctoral dissertation, and in 1925 she became the first person to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe College (now part of Harvard).
Her thesis was “Stellar Atmospheres, A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars”. Astronomers Otto Struve and Velta Zeberg called it
undoubtedly the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy.
Basically until then scientists though that the sun and stars were made of the same elements as Earth – but she showed that in fact they were made up of mainly hydrogen and helium, and that hydrogen was the most abundant element in the universe.
However – this finding was so at odds with the prevailing view she was dissuaded from publishing her findings by astronomer Henry Norris Russell. Strangely enough, not four years later he published his own findings, arrived at by a different method, which came to the same conclusions.
He did acknowledge her work briefly in his paper, but Henry Norris Russell was nevertheless often given credit for the discovery even after Cecilia Payne’s work was accepted.
Despite this achievement, Cecilia Payne had no official position at Harvard and served as a technical assistant to Shapley – she even considered leaving Harvard because of her low status and poor salary. However, Shapley made efforts to improve her position, and in 1938 she was given the title of “Astronomer”.
She went on to long and distinguished academic career at Harvard, being elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1943, then the first woman to be promoted to full professor from within the faculty at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1956, and later with an appointment to the Chair of the Department of Astronomy, she also became the first woman to head a department at Harvard.
And lastly today, a little personal idea of her – her daughter remembers her as
an inspired seamstress, an inventive knitter, and a voracious reader.
Many of the stars we watch in the night sky no longer exist. Millions and millions of years ago they may have exploded and died… leaving only stardust to carry on out into the universe and the last millions of years of light they shone, because it takes so very long to get to us… we will never know if they still exist or not.
The Reality of the Existence of Stars
Who would think
they could discover
the secrets of stars
though they track
their mathematical paths
imagination cannot size
when though they shine
each night long
as their whispers
of light travel on
they know that what
they’re made from
may be gone?
© Liz Brownlee
If you’d like to read about more extraordinary women, why not buy the book Reaching the Stars, Poems about Extraordinary Women and Girls, by me, Jan Dean and Michaela Morgan – link below, press on book!
- Posted in: A-Z Challenge 2017 ♦ Extraordinary Women ♦ Liz Brownlee ♦ Reaching the Stars ♦ Reaching the Stars Poems
- Tagged: Astronomer, Astrophysicist, Cambridge, Cecilia Payne, Extraordinary Women, Harvard, Jan Dean, Liz Brownlee, Michaela Morgan, Newnham College, Poems about extraordinary women and girls, poetry, Reaching the Stars