Woman Astronomer's Firsts Not Credited
December 4, 2018 12:57 PM   Subscribe

Cecelia Payne wrote her PhD thesis on the composition of the sun. Everybody poo-pooed her idea that it was composed of hydrogen and helium, as were other stars. Fellow astronomer Henry Norris Russell, who had doubts about her theory, persuaded Cecilia not to present her thesis, only to publish her discovery in 1930 as his own discovery. Cecilia’s 200-page long research was ignored and she was robbed of her of her due credit.

Here's a more extensive biography from the School of Mathematics & Statistics, Univ. of St. Andrews, Scotland, but the formatting is really ugly: C. Payne-Gaposchkin bio
posted by MovableBookLady (16 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
This quote from the bio.

"Payne-Gaposchkin's most dramatic scientific contribution was the discovery that hydrogen is millions of times more abundant than any other element in the universe. Every high school student knows that Newton discovered gravity, that Darwin discovered evolution, even that Einstein discovered relativity. But when it comes to the composition of our universe, the textbooks simply say that the most prevalent element in the universe is hydrogen. And no one ever wonders how we know. ... "
posted by otherchaz at 1:21 PM on December 4 [24 favorites]

a nicer looking summary of her work on the sun
posted by numaner at 1:29 PM on December 4 [1 favorite]

My contempt for Henry Norris Russell burns, well, as hot as the sun.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:36 PM on December 4 [12 favorites]

And look, they gave her a prize named after him, too:

In 1976 the American Astronomical Society awarded her the Henry Norris Russell Prize

(In a more just world, this would be the Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin prize...)
posted by puffyn at 1:39 PM on December 4 [32 favorites]

From the article: "Fellow astronomer, Henry Norris Russell, who had doubts about her theory persuaded Cecilia not to present her thesis, only to publish her discovery in 1930 as his own discovery." This seems to misrepresent Russell's work.

From the Wikipedia article about Russell: "Russell dissuaded Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin from concluding that the composition of the Sun is different from that of the Earth in her thesis, as it contradicted the accepted wisdom at the time. He realized she was correct four years later after deriving the same result by different means. In his paper Russell credited Payne with discovering that the Sun had a different chemical composition from Earth."

From "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence: C.H. Payne H.N. Russell and standards of evidence in early quantitative spectroscopy"..Russell ... confirmed the results of Payne's 1925 theses using independently-derived arguments... he prominently cited Payne's thesis ... as 'The most important previous determination of the abundance of the elements by astrophysical means.'"

That article also argues that Russell may have dissuaded Payne from publishing her conclusions because they were too radical, not (just?) because she was a woman. It seems likely her gender mattered, and it's clear she faced many barriers that men in her position did not, but there are also plenty of cases when a male grad student made a discovery that threatened the worldview of his advisers and was dissuaded from publishing it.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:44 PM on December 4 [15 favorites]

An appreciation of her work by Owen Gingerich.

It's not actually correct to say that Russell 'ignored' her work. In fact he credited it in his 1929 paper 'On the Composition of the Sun's Atmosphere' as follows:
The most important previous determination of the abundance of the elements by astrophysical means is that by Miss Payne, who determined, by Milne's method of marginal appearances, the relative abundance of eighteen of the most important elements. [..] This is a very gratifying agreement, especially when it is considered that Miss Payne's results were determined by a different theoretical method, with instruments of a quite different type (Harvard objective prisms) and even on different bodies -- a long list of stars, almost all of which are giants.
Not a very effusive acknowledgement, especially as Russell fails to mention that he had initially rejected her findings. But he didn't ignore her completely and it's incorrect to say that she was 'not credited'.
posted by verstegan at 1:46 PM on December 4 [12 favorites]

God damn it.
posted by bilabial at 2:04 PM on December 4

Thank you for this post, and for the information.

From now on, at least in my chemistry courses, Payne-Gaposchkin will be prominently credited for this discovery.
posted by darkstar at 3:06 PM on December 4 [7 favorites]

Thanks for this article. I was curious about the controversy and went to the primary source, and then to a scholarly article (see below). Science is a careful process of discovery. While it is very unfortunate that Payne is not recognized for her initial contribution in this area, my conclusion is that her initial discovery was overlooked because it was an incompletely proven hypothesis and required further experimental confirmation, not because she was deliberately robbed of credit by a competitor. She certainly was brilliant. However, Dr. Payne wrote the following, in part, concerning her thesis: "The enormous abundances derived for those elements [hydrogen,helium] in the stellar atmosphere are certainly not real." (I've truncated the rest of her discussion, but you can read about this in more detail at the source below.) She considered this component of her own thesis as spurious, in part because of the inaccuracies of measurements associated with the method, and possibly because of feedback from her peers. Her original findings were only confirmed following further work by Russel around 1930, and Stromgren in 1932. Source.
posted by Schadenfreude at 3:20 PM on December 4 [9 favorites]

Honestly Cosmos did a better job with this issue in cartoon form.
posted by runcibleshaw at 3:25 PM on December 4

"The moon's an arrant thief, / And her his pale fire she snatches from the sun"
posted by chavenet at 3:57 PM on December 4 [4 favorites]

I wouldn't want to suppress the achievements of someone named Dr. Payne. That's a supervillain origin story.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:34 PM on December 4 [6 favorites]

> "She considered this component of her own thesis as spurious ..."

She was convinced to say so because her (completely accurate) results contradicted the received scientific wisdom of the time.
posted by kyrademon at 4:43 PM on December 4 [5 favorites]

And no one ever wonders how we know. ...

And then that bio still doesn't explain how we know. (numaner's link gives a good overview, though.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:34 PM on December 4

I'm glad the commenters above did a modicum of research to determine whether the Bored Panda article had any merit in libeling Russell.
posted by phenylphenol at 4:04 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]

Patriarchy, is there anything it can't ruin?
posted by evilDoug at 6:58 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]

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