Cecilia Helena Payne: Discovery of components of the stars


“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have the perserverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”                                                                                                                        – Marie Curie

In an era where women were taught to dress, smile and courtesy and men were given books, knowledge, credits and degrees, there was a woman who refused to play by the rules and her name was Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin.

Cecilia Helena Payne

Borm in 1990 in Wendover, England, she was the first woman astrophysicist, whose discovery changed the way we look at our universe today.

Cecilia was always interested in science. She was given the scholarship to study science at Cambridge University. She was never sure which field of science would be her domain but one lecture changed her life. She said of the lecture,” the result was a complete transformation of my world picture. My world had been so shaken that I experienced something very like a nervous breakdown.” The lecture was given by famous astronomer Arthur Eddington on the Theory of General Relativity by Einstein. It was something like she did not find the lecture, the lecture found her. During that night in lecture, she asked so many quality questions that the staff of the university nicknamed her “The Professor.”

During her time, England was very strict towards women in science. It was heavily dominated by men and soon Payne realized that her career in England would be a teacher and nothing more. She moved to the United States of America, where many doors were meant to be opened by her. It was in the United States where she met Harlow Shapely. It was at Harvard University theta she achieved her greater success and flourished as an astronomer.

The sun and the Stars Theory:

Back when scientists believed that the sun is made out of heavy elements, Cecilia Helena Payne’s brilliant and revolutionary doctor’s dissertation proved everyone wrong. In her Ph.D. thesis, Cecilia managed to explain what stars are made of including the sun. Payne used the spectral lines of many different elements and the work of an Indian astrophysicist Meghnand Saha, who had discovered an equation relating the ionization states of an element in a star. Payne applied this theory and discovered that stars are made mainly of Hydrogen and Helium and established that stars would be classified according to their temperatures. Payne found that Helium and Hydrogen were vastly more present in the sun and stars in general. She argued that Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe.

The main thesis in her Ph.D. was that Hydrogen was the main component of the sun, making the sun and the stars very different in composition than that of the Earth. However, this conclusion was dissuaded by Henry Norris Russel who thought that the stars were made up of oxygen, carbon and nitrogen, the same composition as the earth. Russel concluded in 1929, that Payne was correct. She never received proper credit for her discovery because four years later, Russel published the discovery on his own behalf.

She received the first Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe College for her thesis, since Harvard did not grant doctoral degrees to women.

Payne’s Ph.D. thesis is considered by many astronomers as one of the best and the most influential in the field of astronomy. Astronomers Otto Struve and Velta Zebergs later called her thesis “undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy.”

After her doctorate, she continued to study stars of high luminosity, trying now to understand the structure of the Milkyway. In her career, Payne made more than 1,250,000 observations.

She was named a lecturer in astronomy in 1938 but even though she taught courses, they were not listed in the Harvard catalog until after World War II.

Her academic work includes:

  • The Stars of High Luminosity (1930)
  • Variable Stars (1938)
  • Variable Stars and Galactic Structures (1954)
  • Introduction to Astronomy (1956)
  • The Galactic Novae (1957)

She has been honored with the following awards:

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 to that experience… The reward of the old scientist is the sense of having seen a vague sketch grow into a masterly landscape.

—Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (accepting the Henry Norris Russell Prize from the American Astronomical Society)
The aisle she walked into the male-dominated scientific community was an inspiration to many. She became the role model for astrophysicist Joan Fegman. She married Russian-born astrophysicist Sergei I.Gaposchkin and they had three children. Her daughter remembers her as “an inspired seamstress, an inventive knitter and a voracious reader.” At the end of her life, she had her autobiography privately printed as The Dyer’s Hand. It was later printed in Cecilia Payne- Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections.

Cecilia Helena Payne breathed her last on December 7, 1979. Her immortal discovery was one huge step for humanity in the quest for the truth. Her discovery will never be forgotten and she is an inspiration not only to a physicist but to all humans alike.




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