Inspiring Women: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Tim Hunt, Nobel Prize winner and self-confessed chauvinist, recently stated that women in labs have a tendency to fall in love with him and then cry when they are criticized. Women, he said, should have their own labs, where presumably they should do some lady-science about emotions or kittens or something. Women, the implication is, have no place in men’s science.

Enter Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, the most important scientist you’ve never heard of. But you’ve probably heard of her discovery: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin discovered what the universe was made of. Yeah, she’s kind of a big deal.

Cecilia Payne was a student at Cambridge University who wanted to study astronomy. But this was the 1920s, and despite completing her coursework, she was not offered a degree (Cambridge did not award degrees to women until 1948), nor was there any option for her to study an advanced degree in England. America, though, was more accommodating, so in 1923 she boarded a ship for Boston to undertake a graduate fellowship at Harvard Observatory. Payne was the second woman to be awarded this scholarship – the first was fellow astronomer and Cecilia’s close friend, Adelaide Ames, who was a co-author of the Shapley-Ames catalogue of galaxies.

Harvard had, at the time, the largest collection of photographic plates of stellar spectra. Spectra are the long rainbow colored bands of light given off by different elements; the arrangement of electrons in an atom cast different patterns, and by observing those patterns scientists are able to identify the elemental composition of an object. When Payne started her studies at Harvard, hundreds of thousands of stellar spectra photographs had already been analyzed by another female scientist, Annie Jump Cannon, who, in addition to having the coolest name ever, was also the person responsible for devising the way we categorized stars today.

At the time, it was believed stars were primarily composed of the same elements as Earth (carbon, silicon, nitrogen) and therefore stellar spectra showed only the composition of elements in a star. Payne was a student of quantum mechanics, however, and knew that at high heats and pressures the electrons in an element are stripped away and turned into ions. In her 1925 PhD thesis, Cecilia Payne was able to prove that stellar spectra actually revealed the ionization rates of the elements within stars and therefore the surface temperature and pressure of a star. She also proved that, while stars contained the same elements as Earth and in roughly equal amounts, they also contained several magnitudes more hydrogen and helium. Her thesis was described by fellow astronomers as “undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy.” She was only 25, and had already published six other papers on stellar atmospheres.

Unfortunately, astronomer Henry Norris Russel, Payne’s superior, refused to believe her thesis statement, and she was pressured into inserting a final line that prevaricated on her research. When Russel derived the same conclusion as Payne four years later, he was credited with the discovery instead of her (though he did acknowledge Payne’s thesis in his own work).

Payne was the first to graduate in astronomy from Radcliffe College (a women’s college now part of Harvard University). She, along with her compatriots Annie Jump Cannon and Adelaide Ames, pioneered the field of astrophysics and inspired generations of female astronomers. She fought, in her own small way, against the monolith of sexism in science.

Which is why sexist and exclusionary remarks by men such as Tim Hunt are so frustrating. The same pervading misogyny that kept Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin out of Cambridge, that forced her to change her thesis and then credited her work to someone else, still pervades the sciences today. Perhaps it’s not as institutionalized as before, but Hunt’s remarks remind us that we still have a long way to go before women’s contributions to science are seen as equivalent to men’s. We can’t forget the pioneering work of female scientists past, who beat the odds and changed the way we saw our universe.