Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

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Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin
Cecilia Helena Payne Gaposchkin (1900-1979) (2).jpg
Born(1900-05-10)May 10, 1900
Wendover, Buckinghamshire, England
DiedDecember 7, 1979(1979-12-07) (aged 79)
Residence Lexington, Massachusetts
CitizenshipBritish, American (from 1931)
Education St Paul's Girls' School
Alma mater Newnham College, Cambridge, Radcliffe College (Harvard College Observatory)
Known forExplanation of stellar spectra and composition of the Sun, more than 3,000,000 observations of variable stars
Awards Annie Jump Cannon Award in Astronomy (1934), Rittenhouse Medal (1961), Award of Merit from Radcliffe College (1952), Henry Norris Russell Prize (1976)
Scientific career
Fields Astronomy, astrophysics
Institutions Harvard College Observatory, Harvard University
Doctoral students Helen Sawyer Hogg, Joseph Ashbrook, Frank Kameny, Frank Drake, Paul W. Hodge
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin signature.svg

Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin (néePayne; May 10, 1900December 7, 1979) was a British-born American astronomer and astrophysicist who proposed in her 1925 doctoral thesis that stars were composed primarily of hydrogen and helium. [1] Her groundbreaking conclusion was initially rejected because it contradicted the scientific wisdom of the time, which held that there were no significant elemental differences between the Sun and Earth. Independent observations eventually proved she was correct.

Astronomer scientist who studies celestial bodies

An astronomer is a scientist in the field of astronomy who focuses their studies on a specific question or field outside the scope of Earth. They observe astronomical objects such as stars, planets, moons, comets, and galaxies – in either observational or theoretical astronomy. Examples of topics or fields astronomers study include planetary science, solar astronomy, the origin or evolution of stars, or the formation of galaxies. Related but distinct subjects like physical cosmology, which studies the Universe as a whole.

Doctor of Philosophy Postgraduate academic degree awarded by universities in many countries

A Doctor of Philosophy is the highest university degree that is conferred after a course of study by universities in most English-speaking countries. PhDs are awarded for programs across the whole breadth of academic fields. As an earned research degree, those studying for a PhD are usually required to produce original research that expands the boundaries of knowledge, normally in the form of a thesis or dissertation, and defend their work against experts in the field. The completion of a PhD is often a requirement for employment as a university professor, researcher, or scientist in many fields. Individuals who have earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree may, in many jurisdictions, use the title Doctor or, in non-English-speaking countries, variants such as "Dr. phil." with their name, although the proper etiquette associated with this usage may also be subject to the professional ethics of their own scholarly field, culture, or society. Those who teach at universities or work in academic, educational, or research fields are usually addressed by this title "professionally and socially in a salutation or conversation." Alternatively, holders may use post-nominal letters such as "Ph.D.", "PhD", or "DPhil". It is, however, considered incorrect to use both the title and post-nominals at the same time.

Thesis document submitted in support of candidature for an academic degree

A thesis or dissertation is a document submitted in support of candidature for an academic degree or professional qualification presenting the author's research and findings. In some contexts, the word "thesis" or a cognate is used for part of a bachelor's or master's course, while "dissertation" is normally applied to a doctorate, while in other contexts, the reverse is true. The term graduate thesis is sometimes used to refer to both master's theses and doctoral dissertations.


Early life

Cecilia Helena Payne was one of three children born in Wendover, England, [2] to Emma Leonora Helena (née Pertz) and Edward John Payne, a London barrister, historian and accomplished musician. Her mother came from a Prussian family and had two distinguished uncles, historian Georg Heinrich Pertz and the Swedenborgian writer James John Garth Wilkinson. [3] Cecilia Payne's father died when she was four years old, forcing her mother to raise the family on her own.

Wendover market town in Buckinghamshire, England

Wendover is a market town and civil parish at the foot of the Chiltern Hills in Buckinghamshire, England. It is situated at the point where the main road across the Chilterns between London and Aylesbury intersects with the once important road along the foot of the Chilterns. The town is some 35 miles (56 km) north west of London and 5 miles (8 km) south east of Aylesbury, and is very popular with commuters working in London.

Edward John Payne was an English barrister and historian specializing in colonial history.

Prussia state in Central Europe between 1525–1947

Prussia was a historically prominent German state that originated in 1525 with a duchy centred on the region of Prussia on the southeast coast of the Baltic Sea. It was de facto dissolved by an emergency decree transferring powers of the Prussian government to German Chancellor Franz von Papen in 1932 and de jure by an Allied decree in 1947. For centuries, the House of Hohenzollern ruled Prussia, successfully expanding its size by way of an unusually well-organised and effective army. Prussia, with its capital in Königsberg and from 1701 in Berlin, decisively shaped the history of Germany.

Payne attended St Paul's Girls' School. In 1919, she won a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge University, where she read botany, physics, and chemistry. Her interest in astronomy began after attending a lecture by Arthur Eddington on his 1919 expedition to the island of Principe in the Gulf of Guinea off the west coast of Africa to observe and photograph the stars near a solar eclipse as a test of Einstein's general theory of relativity. [4] 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.' [5] :117 She completed her studies, but was not awarded a degree because of her gender; Cambridge did not grant degrees to women until 1948. [6]

St Pauls Girls School independent day school for girls in London, England

St Paul's Girls' School is an independent day school for girls, located in Brook Green, Hammersmith, in West London, England.

University of Cambridge University in Cambridge, United Kingdom

The University of Cambridge is a collegiate public research university in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Founded in 1209 and granted a Royal Charter by King Henry III in 1231, Cambridge is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world's fourth-oldest surviving university. The university grew out of an association of scholars who left the University of Oxford after a dispute with the townspeople. The two 'ancient universities' share many common features and are often referred to jointly as 'Oxbridge'. The history and influence of the University of Cambridge has made it one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

Botany science of plant life

Botany, also called plant science(s), plant biology or phytology, is the science of plant life and a branch of biology. A botanist, plant scientist or phytologist is a scientist who specialises in this field. The term "botany" comes from the Ancient Greek word βοτάνη (botanē) meaning "pasture", "grass", or "fodder"; βοτάνη is in turn derived from βόσκειν (boskein), "to feed" or "to graze". Traditionally, botany has also included the study of fungi and algae by mycologists and phycologists respectively, with the study of these three groups of organisms remaining within the sphere of interest of the International Botanical Congress. Nowadays, botanists study approximately 410,000 species of land plants of which some 391,000 species are vascular plants, and approximately 20,000 are bryophytes.

Payne realized that her only career option in the U.K. was to become a teacher, so she looked for grants that would enable her to move to the United States. After being introduced to Harlow Shapley, the Director of the Harvard College Observatory, where he had just established a graduate program in astronomy, she left England in 1923. [4] This was made possible by a fellowship to encourage women to study at the observatory. Adelaide Ames had become the first student on the fellowship in 1922; the second was Payne.

Harlow Shapley American astronomer

Harlow Shapley was a 20th-century American scientist, head of the Harvard College Observatory (1921–1952), and political activist during the latter New Deal and Fair Deal.

Harvard College Observatory observatory

The Harvard College Observatory (HCO) is an institution managing a complex of buildings and multiple instruments used for astronomical research by the Harvard University Department of Astronomy. It is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, and was founded in 1839. With the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, it forms part of the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Adelaide Ames was an American astronomer and research assistant at Harvard University. She contributed to the study of galaxies with her co-authorship of A Survey of the External Galaxies Brighter Than the Thirteenth Magnitude, which was later known as the Shapley-Ames catalog. Ames was a member of the American Astronomical Society. She was a contemporary of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and her closest friend at the observatory.

Doctoral thesis

Shapley persuaded Payne to write a doctoral dissertation, and so in 1925 she became the first person to earn a PhD in astronomy from Radcliffe College (now part of Harvard). [4] Her thesis was "Stellar Atmospheres; a Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars". [7] [1]

Radcliffe College former womens college in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Radcliffe College was a women's liberal arts college in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and functioned as the female coordinate institution for the all-male Harvard College. It was also one of the Seven Sisters colleges, among which it shared with Bryn Mawr College, Wellesley College, Smith College, and others the popular reputation of having a particularly intellectual, literary, and independent-minded female student body. Radcliffe conferred Radcliffe College diplomas to undergraduates and graduate students for the first 70 or so years of its history and then joint Harvard-Radcliffe diplomas to undergraduates beginning in 1963. A formal "non-merger merger" agreement with Harvard was signed in 1977, with full integration with Harvard completed in 1999. Today, within Harvard University, Radcliffe's former administrative campus is home to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and former Radcliffe housing at the Radcliffe Quadrangle has been incorporated into the Harvard College house system. Under the terms of the 1999 consolidation, the Radcliffe Yard and the Radcliffe Quadrangle retain the "Radcliffe" designation in perpetuity.

Harvard University private research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

Harvard University is a private Ivy League research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with about 6,700 undergraduate students and about 15,250 post graduate students. Established in 1636 and named for its first benefactor, clergyman John Harvard, Harvard is the United States' oldest institution of higher learning, and its history, influence, and wealth have made it one of the world's most prestigious universities.

Payne was able to accurately relate the spectral classes of stars to their actual temperatures by applying the ionization theory developed by Bengali physicist Meghnad Saha. She showed that the great variation in stellar absorption lines was due to differing amounts of ionization at different temperatures, not to different amounts of elements. She found that silicon, carbon, and other common metals seen in the Sun's spectrum were present in about the same relative amounts as on Earth, in agreement with the accepted belief of the time, which held that the stars had approximately the same elemental composition as the Earth. However, she found that helium and particularly hydrogen were vastly more abundant (for hydrogen, by a factor of about one million). [8] Her thesis concluded that hydrogen was the overwhelming constituent of stars (see Metallicity), making it the most abundant element in the Universe. [9]

Stellar classification Classification of stars based on their spectral characteristics

In astronomy, stellar classification is the classification of stars based on their spectral characteristics. Electromagnetic radiation from the star is analyzed by splitting it with a prism or diffraction grating into a spectrum exhibiting the rainbow of colors interspersed with spectral lines. Each line indicates a particular chemical element or molecule, with the line strength indicating the abundance of that element. The strengths of the different spectral lines vary mainly due to the temperature of the photosphere, although in some cases there are true abundance differences. The spectral class of a star is a short code primarily summarizing the ionization state, giving an objective measure of the photosphere's temperature.

Star An astronomical object consisting of a luminous spheroid of plasma held together by its own gravity

A star is type of astronomical object consisting of a luminous spheroid of plasma held together by its own gravity. The nearest star to Earth is the Sun. Many other stars are visible to the naked eye from Earth during the night, appearing as a multitude of fixed luminous points in the sky due to their immense distance from Earth. Historically, the most prominent stars were grouped into constellations and asterisms, the brightest of which gained proper names. Astronomers have assembled star catalogues that identify the known stars and provide standardized stellar designations. However, most of the estimated 300 sextillion (3×1023) stars in the Universe are invisible to the naked eye from Earth, including all stars outside our galaxy, the Milky Way.

Ionization or ionisation, is the process by which an atom or a molecule acquires a negative or positive charge by gaining or losing electrons, often in conjunction with other chemical changes. The resulting electrically charged atom or molecule is called an ion. Ionization can result from the loss of an electron after collisions with subatomic particles, collisions with other atoms, molecules and ions, or through the interaction with electromagnetic radiation. Heterolytic bond cleavage and heterolytic substitution reactions can result in the formation of ion pairs. Ionization can occur through radioactive decay by the internal conversion process, in which an excited nucleus transfers its energy to one of the inner-shell electrons causing it to be ejected.

However, when Payne's dissertation was reviewed, astronomer Henry Norris Russell, who stood by the theories of American physicist Henry Rowland, dissuaded her from concluding that the composition of the Sun was predominantly hydrogen because it would contradict the current scientific consensus that the elemental composition of the Sun and the Earth were similar. In 1914, he had written in an academic article:

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. [10]

Payne consequently described her results as "spurious". [7] :186 [9] A few years later, astronomer Otto Struve described her work as "the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy". [11] Russell also realized she was correct when he derived the same results by different means. In 1929, he published his findings in a paper that admiringly acknowledged Payne's earlier work and discovery; nevertheless, he is often credited for the conclusions she reached. [12] [13] [14]


Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin at work Cecilia Helena Payne Gaposchkin (1900-1979) (3).jpg
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin at work

After her doctorate, Payne studied stars of high luminosity in order to understand the structure of the Milky Way. Later she surveyed all stars brighter than the tenth magnitude. She then studied variable stars, making over 1,250,000 observations with her assistants. This work later was extended to the Magellanic Clouds, adding a further 2,000,000 observations of variable stars. These data were used to determine the paths of stellar evolution. She published her conclusions in her second book, Stars of High Luminosity (1930). [8] Her observations and analysis of variable stars, carried out with her husband, Sergei Gaposchkin, laid the basis for all subsequent work on such objects. [1]

Payne-Gaposchkin remained scientifically active throughout her life, spending her entire academic career at Harvard. When she began, women were barred from becoming professors at Harvard, so she spent years doing less prestigious, low-paid research jobs. Nevertheless, her work resulted in several published books, including The Stars of High Luminosity (1930), Variable Stars (1938) and Variable Stars and Galactic Structure (1954). Shapley had made efforts to improve her position, and in 1938 she was given the title of "Astronomer". On Payne's request, her title was later changed to Phillips Astronomer. [5] :225 [15] She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1943. [16] Her courses were not recorded in the Harvard University catalogue until 1945. [1]

When Donald Menzel became Director of the Harvard College Observatory in 1954, he tried to improve her appointment, and in 1956 she became the first woman to be promoted to full professor from within the faculty at Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. [4] Later, with her appointment to the Chair of the Department of Astronomy, she also became the first woman to head a department at Harvard. [14]

Her students included Helen Sawyer Hogg, Joseph Ashbrook, Frank Drake, Harlan Smith and Paul W. Hodge, all of whom made important contributions to astronomy. [17] She also supervised Frank Kameny, who became a prominent advocate of gay rights. [18]

Payne-Gaposchkin retired from active teaching in 1966 and was subsequently appointed Emeritus Professor of Harvard. [19] She continued her research as a member of staff at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, as well as editing the journals and books published by Harvard Observatory for twenty years. [20]


Payne's career marked a turning point at Harvard College Observatory. Under the direction of Harlow Shapley and Dr E. J. Sheridan (whom Payne-Gaposchkin described as a mentor [5] ), the observatory had already offered more opportunities in astronomy to women than did other institutions, and notable achievements had been made earlier in the century by Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury, Annie Jump Cannon, and Henrietta Swan Leavitt. However, with Payne's PhD, women entered the mainstream. [21]

The trail she blazed into the largely male-dominated scientific community was an inspiration to many. For example, she became a role model for astrophysicist Joan Feynman. Feynman's mother and grandmother had dissuaded her from pursuing science, since they believed women were not physically capable of understanding scientific concepts. [22] [23] [24] Feynman was later inspired by Payne-Gaposchkin when she came across some of her work in an astronomy textbook. Seeing Payne-Gaposchkin's research published in this way convinced Feynman that she could, in fact, follow her scientific passions. [22]

While accepting the Henry Norris Russell Prize from the American Astronomical Society, Payne spoke of her lifelong passion for research: "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 understand something. Nothing can compare with that experience [...] The reward of the old scientist is the sense of having seen a vague sketch grow into a masterly landscape." [25]

Personal life

In her autobiography, Payne tells that while in school she created an experiment on the efficacy of prayer by dividing her exams in two groups, praying for success only on one, the other one being a control group. She achieved the higher marks in the latter group. [5] :97 Later on, she became an agnostic. [26]

In 1931, Payne became an American citizen. On a tour through Europe in 1933, she met Russian-born astrophysicist Sergei I. Gaposchkin in Germany. She helped him get a visa to the United States, and they married in March 1934, settling in the historic town of Lexington, Massachusetts, a short commute from Harvard. Payne added her husband's name to her own, and the Payne-Gaposchkins had three children: Edward, Katherine and Peter. Payne's daughter remembers her as "an inspired seamstress, an inventive knitter, and a voracious reader". Payne and her family were members of the First Unitarian Church in Lexington, where Cecilia taught Sunday school. She was also active with the Quakers. [27] She died at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on December 7, 1979. Shortly before her death, Payne had her autobiography privately printed as The dyer's hand. It was later reprinted as Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: an autobiography and other recollections. [5]

Payne's younger brother, Humfry Payne (1902–1936), who married author and film critic Dilys Powell, became director of the British School of Archaeology at Athens. [28] Payne's granddaughter Cecilia Gaposchkin is a professor of French history at Dartmouth College. [29] [30]

Honors and awards

Selected bibliography

Published academic books:

Significant research papers:

See also

Related Research Articles

Henry Norris Russell American astronomer

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Williamina Fleming astronomer

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Annie Jump Cannon American astronomer

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Helen Sawyer Hogg 20th-century astronomer

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Astrophysics is the branch of astronomy that employs the principles of physics and chemistry "to ascertain the nature of the astronomical objects, rather than their positions or motions in space". Among the objects studied are the Sun, other stars, galaxies, extrasolar planets, the interstellar medium and the cosmic microwave background. Emissions from these objects are examined across all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, and the properties examined include luminosity, density, temperature, and chemical composition. Because astrophysics is a very broad subject, astrophysicists apply concepts and methods from many disciplines of physics, including mechanics, electromagnetism, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, relativity, nuclear and particle physics, and atomic and molecular physics.

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Mary Brück was an Irish astronomer, astrophysicist and historian of science, whose career was spent at Dunsink Observatory in Dublin and the Royal Observatory Edinburgh in Scotland.


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Further reading