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Cecilia Helena Payne

Page history last edited by Robbie Yates 10 years, 1 month ago

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

          By: Robbie Yates 


     Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin (b. 10 September 1900 -d. 7 December 1979) was an astronomer who not only was the first female professor at Harvard University but was also the first to suggest that stars mostly consist of the elements hydrogen and helium.



     Cecilia Payne was born on May 10th, 1900, in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, England. She had two siblings, and she was mostly cared for by her mother, Emma Payne, when her father Edward Payne died while she was at a young age. The family moved to London in 1912, where she attended a school run by the Church of England. The school taught nothing of the science she had yearned for since a younger age, and was forced to study botany and math on her own. In 1917, Payne was transferred to St. Paul’s Girls’ School and then was accepted into Newnham College at Cambridge University in 1919, where she chose to major in biology [2].

     During her attendance at Newnham College, she began attending astronomy lectures and worked in at the college observatory. She switched her major to physics only days after going to these lectures, despite the professor being quite indifferent with her due to Payne being the only female attending [3]. After graduating in 1923 with a bachelor’s degree in physics [4], Payne went on to graduate studies at the female-only Radcliffe College, which was affiliated to the male-only Harvard University [2]. In 1933, Payne travelled to various parts of Europe to continue her studies, and met fellow astronomer Sergei Gaposchkin at an astronomy convention in Germany. They both returned to America, and Payne used her influence to give him a position at Harvard as well.

     Payne and Gaposchkin married in 1934, with Payne taking on the name Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. The two had a daughter and two sons, and the daughter went on to become an astronomer herself, even collaborating with her mother [1]. After she was awarded her Ph.D., Cecilia Payne went on to work at Harvard College observatory as an assistant for many years due to Harvard refusing to allow a woman to be a professor. It was not until 1938 that Payne was promoted to faculty, and in 1956 she became the first female professor and department chair at Harvard [5].


Contributions to STEM

     At Radcliffe College, Payne got a close look at what was happening behind the scenes of what astronomers and astrophysicists believed at the time. Before Payne’s findings, it was taught that stars were composed mostly of iron, much like Earth and other planets. Payne observed spectroscope data coming from the sun’s surface in Harvard’s observatory and found that instead of traces of iron, there was mostly hydrogen. Payne concluded in her doctoral thesis that the sun was composed of at least 90% hydrogen, the rest being helium [3]. This was extremely bold at the time, for it completely revolutionized what most of astrophysics had been built on for the past 80 years. Many professors and astronomers hailed it as one of the best written astronomy theses ever written [4]. However, other professors rejected her findings at first for it proved all of their previous teachings and work wrong. In the end, Payne was forced to add in a statement that the presence of hydrogen in stars was highly unlikely [1].

     Because of Payne’s thesis, the theory of hydrogen being converted to helium and pure energy explained many of the flaws with the theory of the stars being made of iron. Payne’s thesis showed that four hydrogen atoms in the sun are squeezed together under so much weight and pressure that it fuses together to make the element helium. However, helium has less mass than the four hydrogen atoms required for the fusion, and the missing mass is converted into the energy that the sun produces [3].

     Payne’s thesis was titled “Stellar Atmospheres: A Contribution to the Observational Study of Matter at High Temperatures.” It suggested that all stars have the same basic composition and provided a temperature scale. She was the first woman from both Harvard University and Radcliffe College to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy [2]. Unfortunately, due many women of this time not even being allowed to study in these fields, most of the credit for Payne’s findings goes to astronomer Henry Russell. Russell had much more of an influence than Payne during the early 1900s and took credit for the discovery that the sun is composed of mostly hydrogen and helium. It was not until 1977 that Payne was awarded the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship; the highest honor the American Astronomical Society can give [5].


Interesting Facts

  • Helped in the explanation and discoveries of the atomic and hydrogen bombs

  • Was an elected member in 1923 to the Royal Astronomical Society

  • Has an asteroid named after her: Asteroid 2039 Payne-Gaposchkin


Importance on 21st Century Society and Culture

     Throughout her life, Payne published many different major works and countless articles stars and galaxies.


Works Cited

[1] Bailey, Ellen. “Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.” Great Neck Publishing (2007). n. pag. Web. 1 Feb. 2014


[2] “Payne-Gaposchkin, Cecilia Helena (1900-1979).” Hutchinson Encyclopedia of Britain. 2011: 9490. History Reference Center. Web. 1 Feb. 2014.


[3] Bodanis, David. “The Fires of the Sun.” Wilson Quarterly 24.3 (2000): 25. Literary Reference Center. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.


[4] James, C. Renée. “The WOMAN who cracked the stellar code.” Astronomy 34.1 (2006): MasterFILE Elite. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.


[5] Clown, Marcus. “The star who unravelled the sun.” New Scientist 180.2420 (2003): MAS Ultra – School Edition. Web. 1 Feb. 2014.


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