Women in Astronomy: Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin

B/W portrait of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin sitting at a deskI’ve been reading a lot of astronomy lately and it’s striking how many major advances in our understanding of the universe have been made by women – women whose contributions often go unsung. Since women’s history is basically what I do, I thought I’d take a few minutes now and again to highlight some of these women and what they accomplished.  

Today (Dec 7) in 1979. Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin passed away. Born and raised in the UK, young Cecilia Payne was inspired to study astronomy after seeing a lecture by Arthur Eddington on his recent excursion to observe the 1919 solar eclipse – particularly to measure the way light bent around the Sun due to gravity, proving a major prediction from Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities for women to study and practice astronomy in the UK, Payne emigrated to the US to study and work at the Harvard College Observatory.  

At the observatory, Payne worked with the spectra of stars, applying recent findings about the behavior of ionized gasses (such as found in the outer surface of stars) to identify the elements present. At the time, prevailing thought was that the physical makeup of stars would be more or less the same as the physical makeup of the Earth, just hotter. Remember, in the early 1920s, we have no understanding of fission or fusion, so it was not known what made stars “run”.  Payne made a huge step towards figuring that out, finding that hydrogen was by far the most common element in stars, with small amounts of helium and mere traces of anything else. In fact, her work showed that hydrogen was the prevalent element in the universe as a whole, a million times more common than anything else.  

This was a stunning discovery, one that completely reshaped our understanding of the physical world. However, in her dissertation, Payne was convinced to downplay the discovery as the result of “spurious” data, since it contradicted the consensus view of the day. The man who convinced her that her results were wrong, Henry Norris Russell, later found the same thing and published his results 4 years later. It will not surprise you to hear that he is often credited with this world-shaking discovery… 

In time, her contribution was recognized and her dissertation hailed as a foundational work in the field. Payne continued to do important work at Harvard, often with her astronomer husband Sergei Gaposchkin, whom she married in 1934.  She also taught astronomy, although her courses were not listed in Harvard’s catalog until 1945. In 1956 she was awarded a full-time professorship, the first woman in Harvard’s history to be so recognized, eventually becoming the first woman to chair a department at Harvard as well. As a teacher, she instructed generations of significant astronomers. 

Although not well-known in the mainstream (to be honest, few astronomers are…) Payne-Gaposchkin’s achievements have been recognized in many ways, especially in recent years. She received numerous honorary doctorates during her lifetime, and has had an asteroid, a volcano on Venus, a dissertation fellowship, and a telescope at an observatory in South Africa named after her. In 2008, the Institute of Physics created the Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin Medal to recognize “distinguished contributions in plasma, solar, and space physics”.  

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