Forgotten Science Heroes: Cecilia Payne


Astronomer Cecilia Payne made one of the most important discoveries in 20th century astronomy, and yet her name is rarely mentioned in modern physics textbooks, her contribution to science largely forgotten. Responsible for the discovery of hydrogen as the main component of stars and the most abundant element in the universe, her PhD adviser discouraged her from publishing her research, then published the same conclusion as his own work four years later.

Cecilia Payne was born in 1900 in Wendover, England. She seems to have had a scientific mind from an early age; while in school she conducted an experiment to test the efficacy of prayer, using two groups – one which prayed, and another, a control group, which didn’t. Later in life she identified as agnostic.

In 1919 she won a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge, to study botany, physics and chemistry. While studying, she attended a lecture by Arthur Eddington on his expedition to the island of Principe off the coast of West Africa to photograph stars around a solar eclipse to test Einstein’s general theory of relativity – this was where her real interest in astronomy began. Although she completed her studies, she was not awarded a degree, as Cambridge did not award degrees to women until 1948.

She realised the only way for her to pursue an academic career was to continue her education in the USA, where attitudes to women in academia were more open. She left England in 1923 to join a graduate programme in astronomy at Harvard College Observatory, as the second recipient of a fellowship to encourage women to study at the college.

In 1925, she became the first person to receive a PhD in astronomy from Radcliffe College (now part of Harvard). Her thesis, “Stellar Atmospheres, A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars”, posited that hydrogen is the main elemental component of stars, and the most abundant element in the universe. This contradicted the scientific consensus of the time, which was that stars had roughly the same elemental composition as the Earth. Because of this, astronomer Henry Norris Russell convinced her not to publish. Four years later, after conducting his own research, he came to the same conclusion and published his research, only briefly referencing her work and largely taking credit for the discovery.

Payne was a brilliant astronomer who surpassed multiple barriers that the patriarchal society she worked in threw in front of women in academia. She continued her work as a pioneering astronomer at Harvard throughout her life, despite not receiving an official positon at the University until 1938. Many women now working in astronomy cite her as an influence and inspiration, with her work being recognised as the entrance of women into ‘mainstream’ astronomy.

[Clare Patterson –@clarepttrsn]

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