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“Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. And if you achieve that reward, you will ask no other.” 
― Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin


Image result for Cecilia Payne-GaposchkinWomen's history is often blighted by the concerted efforts of men to keep them and their ideas down. It does not surprise me that Russell told her not to print, or that her ideas were considered radical. Not only were they radical they called into question those who codified the accepted works. I believe Payne knew by the time she undertook her Doctorate, an honour at the time given she had no Masters degree which seems to be the only entry qualification today, that she faced opposition. You have to admire her approach which was to question the accepted wisdom of the day since it did not generate any new perspectives much like the once accepted belief that the sun revolves around the earth. Great things come from great minds, minds capable of understanding the other factors that can influence what we see or hear. She obviously saw there had to be something wrong with the accepted theory and wisely chose to follow her own reasoning and inquiry. Enquiry is the true nature of science rather than slavish adherence to theories just because someone has made a reputation and come to prominence. Many accredited astronomers were able to build their work on her solid theories by the time she retired in the 1960's otherwise they would have struggled to gain any headway. I think of Stephen Hawking for one who forced his theories on us then changed them with alarming regularity because they could not be proven or fell apart under scrutiny from his peers, it was he who gave us the phrase 'we think...'. as a means of not having to prove anything and at the same time relegated scientific research to the production of ideas and possibilities only. Payne deserves her place in the hall of fame, she deserves to be remembered as the Person who first postulated then offered a stable theory about the composition of the universe. How many Women will be vindicated as time goes on for being the 'First' rather than the assistant. It is unconscionable to take the credit for another's work but payback comes when the 'thief' has to produce work of a similar quality and rigour in the future, rarely can they do so because they did not have the discipline or educational foundation or even the creativity required for such a task. I'm sure Payne must have come to that realisaton and quietly chuckled knowing Russell had put himself in the spotlight with nowhere to go. Did he produce anything outstanding after he stole her work? Unlikely, whereas Payne has produced a body of work that benefits astronomers even today. Thank you Cecilia Payne-Gaposchki.


Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin quotes Showing 1-3 of 3

“Young people, especially young women, often ask me for advice. Here it is, valeat quantum. Do not undertake a scientific career in quest of fame or money. Image result for Cecilia Payne-GaposchkinThere 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.” 
― Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

“Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. And if you achieve that reward, you will ask no other.” 
― Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

“I was to blame for not having pressed my point. I had given in to Authority when I believed I was right. That is another example of How Not To Do Research. I note it here as a warning to the young. If you are sure of your facts, you should defend your position.” 
― Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections


january 1, 1925: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and the Day the Universe Changed

Image result for Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin
Photo: Smithsonian Institution

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin at Harvard

By Richard Williams

Cecilia Payne made a long and lonely journey from her childhood in England to prominence in a scientific community that begrudged a place to women. She began her scientific career with a scholarship to Cambridge University, where she took the course in physics. After meeting Harlow Shapley from Harvard, she moved to Massachusetts and pursued a doctoral degree in astronomy. Her 1925 thesis, entitled Stellar Atmospheres, was famously described by astronomer Otto Struve as “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy.” By calculating the abundance of chemical elements from stellar spectra, her work began a revolution in astrophysics.

Harlow Shapley liked to say that no one could earn a PhD unless he had suffered in the process. As she neared the end of her doctoral project on stellar spectra, Cecilia Payne wrote, “There followed months, almost a year as I remember, of utter bewilderment. Often I was in a state of exhaustion and despair, working all day and late into the night” [1]. The plight of suffering graduate students is perhaps best expressed by a line from poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in 1819: “Like the poets, they learn through their suffering what they teach in their songs.”

When Cecilia Payne began her study of stellar spectra, scientists believed that the relative abundance of elements in the atmospheres of the Sun and the stars was similar to that in Earth’s crust. In 1889, geochemist Frank Wigglesworth Clarke’s The Relative Abundance of the Chemical Elements was the result of his comprehensive sampling of minerals from many parts of Earth’s crust. Many of the strong lines of the solar spectrum came from the elements most abundant on Earth. The pre-eminent American physicists at the time, Henry Norris Russell and Henry Rowland, believed that the elemental abundances on Earth and the Sun were substantially identical. Russell wrote [2] “The agreement of the solar and terrestrial lists is such as to confirm very strongly Rowland’s opinion that, if the Earth’s crust should be raised to the temperature of the Sun’s atmosphere, it would give a very similar absorption spectrum.” The spectra of the Sun and other stars were similar, so it appeared that the relative abundance of elements in the universe was like that in Earth’s crust.

Payne had a better knowledge of atomic spectra than most astronomers at the time. She also knew the 1920 work of physicist Meghnad Saha on the thermal ionization of atoms. He showed how to use an equilibrium equation from physical chemistry to relate the ratio of excited states to ground states, and the fraction of ionized states to the temperature, electron concentration, ionization potential, and other properties of the stellar atmosphere. Payne met Saha when he visited Harvard, just as his work was becoming known to astronomers.

Payne’s thesis [3], finished on January 1, 1925, confirmed the view of Russell and Rowland on the abundance of the heavier elements in stellar atmospheres. She then applied Saha’s equations to the Balmer series absorption in hydrogen, which originates from atoms in the first excited state. She was the first to appreciate that, in the atmosphere of the Sun at 5700 K, only about one in 200 million of the hydrogen atoms is in this excited state, so that the total quantity of hydrogen is grossly underrepresented by the Balmer absorption. A similar argument holds for helium. She found similar results for other stars. Payne concluded that, unlike on Earth, hydrogen and helium are the dominant elements of the Sun and stars. Henry Norris Russell strongly opposed this conclusion and convinced her to omit it from her thesis. However, currently accepted values for the mass fraction of elements in the Milky Way Galaxy are: ~74% hydrogen, 24% helium; all the remaining elements, 2%, confirming Payne’s result. Her discovery of the true cosmic abundance of the elements profoundly changed what we know about the universe. The giants — Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein — each in his turn, brought a new view of the universe. Payne’s discovery of the cosmic abundance of the elements did no less.

In 1934 Payne visited the observatory in Leningrad, at a time of great Soviet-German tension, hard living conditions, and suspicion of foreigners. She continued on to visit Germany, where conditions were equally tense, and met a young Russian astronomer, Sergei Gaposchkin. Despite hardships and persecution in the Soviet Union because of his political views, he had achieved success as an astronomer. Now he faced persecution because he was Russian. He asked her to help him get to America. She was moved by his story, and, after returning home, she worked hard to get him a visa as a stateless person. He came and, later in 1934, they married and she became Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.

On completing her doctorate, after considering other opportunities, she decided to stay on at Harvard. At the time, advancement to professor was denied to women at Harvard, so she spent years in lesser, low-paid duties. She published several books, including The Stars of High Luminosity, 1930; Variable Stars, 1938; and Variable Stars and Galactic Structure, 1954.

Finally, in 1956, Payne-Gaposchkin achieved two Harvard firsts: she became the first female professor, and the first woman to become department chair.

Her obituary read, in part, “Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin, a pioneering astrophysicist and probably the most eminent woman astronomer of all time, died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on December 7, 1979. In the 1920s she derived the cosmic abundance of the elements from stellar spectra and demonstrated for the first time the chemical homogeneity of the universe” [4].

  1. C. Payne-Gaposchkin, An Autobiography and Other Reflections, Katherine Haramundanis, ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

  2. Science 39, 791(1914).

  3. C. H. Payne, Stellar Atmospheres (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1925)

  4. Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 23, 450 (1982).


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