Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (from Wikipedia)

Keywords: Astronomy, women scientists, glass ceiling

(There are many influential people in history that are not generally known. Many such can arguably be said to have changed history because they doubted something and acted on that doubt. Here is someone I recently came across that I put in these categories.)

I recently became aware of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin from an article in Scientific American (Sept 2020) entitled Our Place in the Universe. Evidently Payne is better known then I knew since she is one of 16 women scientists featured on a t-shirt I recently bought. Some highlights from Wikipedia:

“… in 1925 she became the first person to earn a PhD in astronomy from Radcliffe College of Harvard University.”

Her PhD dissertation showed “… that helium and particularly hydrogen were vastly more abundant (for hydrogen, by a factor of about one million) [in stars in contrast to earth]. Her thesis concluded that hydrogen was the overwhelming constituent of stars (see Metallicity), making it the most abundant element in the Universe.

“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 …”

 “Russell [ultimately] 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”

“… astronomer Otto Struve described her work as “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy”.

This is a foundational finding that is at the heart of much astronomy. Payne continued to have a distinguished career and “her career marked a turning point at Harvard College Observatory”, allowing women to enter the mainstream of astronomy.

Science is, perhaps, the ultimate pursuit of those who are curious – of those who doubt. By starting from doubt, Payne established a foundational understanding of stars and broke a glass barrier along the way. Isn’t that awesome?

As always, there is more to explore by searching on her name.

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