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Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, pioneering astrophysicist
April 8, 2013 2:00 PM   Subscribe

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was a towering figure in 20th-century astronomy. Born in 1900 in England, she won tuition to Newnham College where she studied botany, chemistry, and physics. After attending an astronomy lecture in 1919, she changed the focus of her future studies. She moved to the United States, where she went on to earn the first Ph.D awarded in astronomy from Radcliffe College. She later became the first female to be promoted to full-professor from within the faculty at Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and was the first woman to head a department at Harvard when she was appointed to the Chair of the Department of Astronomy. Amongst her numerous studies and advances, she challenge the belief that the sun was made of the same composition of the earth, furthered the study of metallicity of stars and the structure of the Milky Way.

Cecilia Payne was one of three children, with her two brothers receiving funding for college. Payne won a scholarship to study at Newnham College, where her major field of study was Natural Sciences. She was fascinated in astronomy from age 5, when she saw a meteor streak through the night sky, and her interest was rekindled after attending Sir Arthur Eddington's lecture on the first experimental test of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, in which the 1919 eclipse provided an opportunity to see light from the bright Hyades star cluster curve due to the gravitational pull of the sun. She completed her coursework in England in 1923 at a time women were not granted degrees at Cambridge, then she sought and obtained a Pickering Fellowship from Harvard to study under Harlow Shapley, the recently appointed director of the Harvard Observatory. Shapley began a graduate program in astronomy, and with the fellowship to encourage women to study at the Observatory, Payne was the second female student in the program, following Adelaide Ames.

Cecilia Payne then moved to the United States to further her studies in astronomy, where she published here thesis paper, Stellar Atmospheres, a contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layer of Stars, in 1925. Her results were contradictory to the current popular theories. When Shapley sent Payne's these to Dr. Henry Norris Russell at Princeton, he informed her that the result was "clearly impossible," and to protect herself, Payne inserted a statement in her thesis that the calculated results were "almost certainly not real. But after Payne published her thesis as a book and received wider review of her theory, her calculations were validated, and astronomer Otto Struve called her book, Stellar Atmospheres, "undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy."

In 1926 when she was 26 years old, she became the youngest scientist to be listed in American Men of Science. By 1934, Henry Norris Russell's opinion of Payne was greatly improved, as when Princeton's president inquired with Russell about a possible staff member to groom as his replacement, Russell wrote that the best candidate in America "alas, is a woman!,—not at present on our staff". But it was not until 1938 that her work as a lecturer and researcher was recognized at Harvard and she was granted the title of "astronomer." In her early years after she finished her Ph.D. through the 1930s, Payne performed the duties of a professor, including lecturing, advising students, and conducting graduate research, but her title at Harvard was "technical assistant" to Professor Shapley. In those earlier days, her small salary was categorized by the department under 'equipment', and her lectures were not listed in the course catalog until 1945.

In 1932, Payne went on a tour of observatories around Europe, ending in Berlin to attend a meeting of Astronomische Gesellschaft. It was there she met Sergei Gaposchkin (Google books), a Russian astronomer who was looking to find a position out of Germany. Payne argued with Shapley for Gaposchkin to join the Harvard College Observatory, and within a few months, Gaposchkin was a research assistant at the observatory. Payne and Gaposchkin were married in 1934, and the two worked at Harvard for many years, collaborating on some of their studies.

In 1956, she became the first woman tenured to a full professorship at Harvard University, and simultaneously she became the first woman to chair an academic department at Harvard. In 1961, she was awarded the Rittenhouse Medal from Franklin Institute, retired in 1966 and was named Professor Emeritus at Harvard University in 1967. Payne-Gaposchkin was awarded the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship from the American Astronomical Society in 1976. In her career, she wrote more than 150 papers and nine books, and made several million observations of thousands of variable stars with her husband and her assistants. She passed away on December 7, 1979.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin is remembered by her students, and her story retold in her own words, written up by Owen Gingerich at Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. You can also read part of her acceptance speech for the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship (Google books), and some quotes from her autobiography (Google books). The Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin Lecture series was established in October 2000 during the centenary year of her birth. The goal of the series is to remember Payne-Gaposchkin by honoring a modern astrophysicist with broad accomplishments.
posted by filthy light thief (11 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

It's a bit distressing to me to see how so many brilliant women in science were so slighted by their peers. Actually, being frank, that they were so slighted by their inferiors.

The whole goal of being a scientist is to discover and disseminate truth, and it sure seems to me that disguising her talents and her salary are very much not in that spirit. One would hope that people, supposedly devoted to finding the truth, would better at finding obvious truths that are sitting right there. I suppose they're a little better, but it's quite depressing just how minor and incremental the improvement is.

At least she, and many other female scientists, have had the occasional champion, powerful figures who were willing to stand up and say "Look, this woman is extremely talented!" So it's not hopeless. But it's such a goddamn shame that they were so few and far between. They probably were worried about their funding, or their status in their overall fields, and feared slapping broader society with a large fish, telling it that it was wrong.

But that's what scientists are supposed to do, when it's demonstrably wrong about something.
posted by Malor at 2:26 PM on April 8, 2013

Yeah, but how was her stroganoff?
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:40 PM on April 8, 2013 [6 favorites]

Just tweeted a link to this page and got a correction:
She had a brother and a sister, not two brothers. Not sure about the uni funds, money was tight, but she got a scholarship.— @PenguinGalaxy April 8, 2013
posted by edd at 3:00 PM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

One of the things I love about this place is beautiful posts like this. I feel like I learned a great deal even without delving into the links.
posted by immlass at 3:13 PM on April 8, 2013

Yeah, but how was her stroganoff?
posted by Celsius1414 at 4:40 PM on April 8

Also my immediate reaction.
posted by hwestiii at 3:31 PM on April 8, 2013

Great Post. I know of her because a few weeks ago my daughter decided to make her the subject of a drawing project and has been talking about how cool she was ever since. Yeah Cecelia!
posted by Mcable at 3:49 PM on April 8, 2013

Thank you. This is a much better post than I would have made out of the two open tabs I have had for the past month thinking "I should make a post about her".
posted by fings at 4:35 PM on April 8, 2013

So I was interested in who her academic descendents are: her students and her students' students etc. Only one student is listed at the top of her Wikipedia page: Frank Kameny. Someone needs to make a post about him, too. What an amazing story.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:55 PM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

edd, thanks for sharing that correction.

Regarding the stroganoff, but she was pretty good at embroidery (that's the needlepoint based on the images of the supernova Cassiopeia-A, which she planned out and provided instructions for others to follow -- those links are at the bottom of the linked page)
posted by filthy light thief at 6:29 PM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

When my spouse was working on her own astronomy Ph.D. thesis, while searching the literature she was stunned to come across a 1951 paper titled "Spectral Classification of Stars Listed in Miss Payne's Catalogue of C Stars".

"Miss Payne" made that catalogue in 1930, five years after she received her Ph.D. The paper that referred to "Miss Payne" was written in 1951, more than twenty-five years after Dr. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin wrote the thesis that determined the basic physical make-up of stars, and effectively the Universe itself.

But, apparently, heaven forefend she get referred to as "Dr. Payne".
posted by kyrademon at 6:56 PM on April 8, 2013

From what I've read on Cecilia, it sounded like she wasn't so much personally slighted (beyond the general disbelief that her new theories on the compositions of stars), as she was trying to work in a time when women weren't even considered as possible scientists. From the lack of credentialing from Newnham College/Cambridge University for women, to Harvard's slow inclusion of women into tenured professorships (PDF) and other roles. That PDF provides a timeline for all(?) of their departments, and notes that in 1947, of the 180 tenured Arts & Sciences (FAS) professors, none are women. By Fall 2011 of the 549 tenured FAS professors, only 120 are women.

this isn't positive in any way, and I'm not sure if it's really better that the lack of appreciation and credit to women in the fields is systematic compared to a focused effort to put down individual women. Cecilia Payne, at 26, was the youngest scientist, not just the youngest female scientist, to be listed in American Men of Science. But that could be a bright spot in a sea of darkness.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:32 AM on April 10, 2013

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