Every child in high school is taught of Isaac Newton who discovered gravity, of Charles Darwin and evolution and of Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity. However, when it comes to the composition of our universe, textbooks merely mention that the most abundant elements it is composed of are hydrogen and helium. Not one ever mentions how we come to know of this fact. Despite her revolutionary discovery, the name, Cecilia Payne, is hardly known to most people. A genius who defied the norms of her time and became one of most gifted female astronomers to grace the American academia, Cecilia Payne is a name deserving of more recognition.
Cecilia Payne was born in 1900, at a time when women rights were very limited. Her father died when she was just four, forcing her mother to raise Cecilia and her two siblings on her own. Despite her hardships, she went to win a scholarship to study at Cambridge University where her interest in Astronomy was sparked. However, she wasn’t awarded a degree upon her studies completion because of her gender. It wouldn’t be until 1948 that Cambridge would award degrees to women. Realizing that opportunities for her in England were very limited, she applied for a grant and moved to the United States.
There she earned her Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe College, the first women to do so. Her doctoral thesis which correctly concluded the composition of stars challenged the conventional view at the time which proposed that celestial bodies including stars and gas giants had an elemental composition similar to Earth. However, she was dissuaded from publishing her theory by the well-known astronomer of the time, Henry Norris Russell, who didn’t want her work to defy the current scientific consensus. Four years later, Russell would arrive at the same conclusions and be wrongly given credit for the discovery.
After her doctorate, she tried pursuing a career in science. However, women were barred from becoming professors at the time and so she had to work in low-paying research jobs. During this time, together with her husband, Sergei Gaposchkin, she made over 2 million observations of stars in the Milky way and based on the data determined how stars change over their lifetime. Her study of variable stars (stars who brightness, as seen from Earth, fluctuates) laid the foundation for all further studies on these objects.
When the esteemed astrophysicist Donald Menzel became the Director of the Harvard College Observatory in 1954, he made efforts to improve Payne position within the university and 2 years later, she was finally able to become a professor at the prestigious institute. She went on to chair the Department of Astronomy at Harvard, a first for a woman for any department at the university.
Cecilia’s success in a male-dominated scientific community marked a turning point for women. Her example inspired a generation of women to pursue their passion for science. Since her death in 1979, however, little has been done to promote her legacy. Even obituaries in her name failed to highlight her most important scientific achievements.