Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin – Antonia Guise

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

So who is Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin? And why am I inspired by Her Story?

Our hoops are inspired by Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, the woman who discovered what the stars were made of. 

Born in 1900 Cecilia’s education and career opportunities looked bad. Particularly as her mother didn’t believe that girls should have money spent on formal education. Despite this Cecilia won a scholarship to study science at Cambridge University. She graduated without a degree (Cambridge University didn’t award women degrees until 1948). Realising her career options in the UK were limited Cecilia took the decision to move to America to join an Astronomy graduate programme at Harvard. 

In 1925 she became the first person to earn a PhD from Radcliffe College. Her thesis on stellar atmospheres is her greatest contribution. Using Ionisation Theory she correctly identified that helium and hydrogen were the main component of stars. Concluding that hydrogen was the most abundant element in the Universe. 

It was widely accepted at the time that the stars were made up of the same elements as the planets, so Cecilia was dissuaded from publishing her findings as they would be considered too ‘out there’ by main stream science. She therefore followed her thesis tutor’s advice to downplay her findings as a possible error, in order to get her research published.  

Her tutor Henry Russell, despite acknowledging Cecilia’s work, was later credited with the discovery, having reached the same result by different method. Payne’s role stayed hidden from the wider scientific consciousness for several decades.

 In 1956 she became the first woman to be appointed professor at Harvard University. 

During her career Cecilia and her team made around 3.25M star observations which were later used to determine the different stages of a Star’s ‘life-cycle’. 

 Payne remained at the observatory until her death in 1979. The trail she blazed into the largely male-dominated scientific community was an inspiration to many. She is widely credited with inspiring a whole generation of female astronomers. 

Suggested reading:

Stars in the making, by Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin

What Stars Are Made of: The Life of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, by Donovan Moore

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