Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: What is the Universe made of?

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin sqOriginally published in the ebook A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention.

by Alice Sheppard

Cecilia Helena Payne was a hugely successful astronomer who discovered the composition of stars when she was 25. She is well known in astronomical circles, but few others know her name despite the significance of her discovery. She was, as fellow astronomer Dorrit Hoffleit remembered many years after her death, “the most brilliant and at the same time the person most discriminated-against at Harvard College Observatory”.

A note on names: Payne is remembered by many names. She is often referred to by her first name or, after she married, as Mrs G. These days, she would be Dr or Professor Payne-Gaposchkin, which seems more appropriate given her achievements. In this account, as we watch her age and status change, Cecilia, Payne, Payne-Gaposchkin or Mrs G will all refer to her.

A bright streak of inspiration

Cecilia Payne was born in 1900 to upper-class but close and loving parents. She was the eldest of three children: two girls and a boy. Humfry, her brother, arrived when she was two and Leonora when she was four. Cecilia’s parents encouraged her love of music, books and stories: Her father began playing scales on the recorder to her when she was two weeks old “to educate” her ear and it was her mother, not a servant, who took her for walks in the pram.

Early in life, Cecilia noticed that opportunities were opened to men first in her own family. Although she got on well with her brother, she felt, from the beginning, that it was Humfry “who really mattered.” Cecilia and Leonora were expected to make themselves “scarce” if Humfry had friends to visit, and Cecilia felt that he was paid the most attention by other adult friends and relatives too. It was imperative that Humfry be helped and financed to go to university; the girls were left to make their own arrangements.

Tragedy struck the Payne family early in the children’s lives, when their father, Edward, died suddenly when Cecilia was four. Edward had been in his sixties, having married late in life. He seems to have had a heart attack and fallen into a river while taking a solitary walk. Cecilia never forgot “that terrible day”, and her mother, Emma, always wept at the mention of him. It was also a financial disaster for the family. Although Edward had run a legal practice, earning a living was not considered respectable in their class, and Emma had no means of making money.

Young Cecilia was an intelligent child who relished learning, and she had a glimpse of her future live before she had even gone to school. “At the age of five Cecilia saw a meteor, and thereupon decided to be an Astronomer. She remarked that she must begin quickly, in case there should be no research left when she grew up,” wrote one of Cecilia’s university friends, Betty Grierson Leaf in a 1923 essay.

When Cecilia was 12, the family moved to London for Humfry’s education. Cecilia badly missed the countryside and disliked her new school, whose emphasis was on religious education at the expense of science subjects — she knew the Bible very well and was annoyed both when people misquoted it or took it too literally. One of her teachers, Dorothy Dalglish, noticing her insatiable appetite for science, gave her an astronomy book and taught her botany, the science of plants. Cecilia had been keeping a collection of dried plants, but Dalglish instructed her to learn to draw them instead. For many years after, she planned on a career either in botany or as an actress because outside school the Payne children were involved with a drama group.

Despite all these successes, she seems to have been lonely. She felt unpopular, and safest remaining silent after older students were admonished for being beaten by her in a test. She sometimes sneaked in to the science classroom to admire its bottles of elements: “the warp and woof” of what the world is made of. (It was only recently that the existence of atoms had been established for certain.)

Growing up, most of the relatives the children saw were women and, while few women went to university in those days, Cecilia’s relatives gave her early encouragement to study science. Aunt Katherine, was a relative of Charles Lyell — the great geologist and colleague of Charles Darwin — and another aunt, Aunt Dora had been to Newnham College, Cambridge. This inspired Cecilia, and she longed to go there too. Indeed, she also often longed to ask her aunts about Lyell and Darwin’s scientific work, but seldom plucked up the courage.

Another, much less liked aunt wished to find Cecilia a rich husband, but she indignantly rejected the notion. Besides the fact that she would have little dowry, she had every intention of going to university and having a career.

When she was seventeen, Cecilia changed schools to St Paul’s, which had a much stronger emphasis on science subjects. She especially enjoyed physics and was fascinated by relativity, a theory about ten years old by this time. When she heard “everything is relative,” she wondered “relative to what?” and the excitement of the thought was like an earthquake to her.

She worked very hard to prepare for her time at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she studied natural sciences. “The time had come when learning from others was not enough. I wanted to pursue the frontiers for myself,” she wrote in 1979.

Looking to the stars at Cambridge

Cecilia arrived at Cambridge in the happy — for the young — atmosphere of post-war 1919. The university was struggling due to financial cuts and the deaths in the war of many of its younger male staff, but Cecilia’s generation were optimistic for the future. However, women had only started to be admitted within the previous few decades, and were not granted degrees. Several times in the late 1800s and early 1900s the question of whether to grant women degrees had been raised, but each time many male students protested. They burnt an effigy of a woman on a bicycle in the market square in 1897 and battered down the gates of Newnham College in 1921, while Cecilia was a student there. Both times the motion was defeated. There were a few women tutors, but none were able to hold official positions or have a say in university affairs until 1948.

Cecelia studied natural sciences, a four-year course in which students chose three science subjects for the first three years, and one for the final year. She chose botany, chemistry and physics but was disappointed by the first two, especially botany. While she wished to “make new theories”, and was especially interested in evolution, the lecturers and demonstrators merely wished her to amass long-known information and to ignore all theories and specimens not on her course.

The physics department, however, was bubbling with excitement. Famous figures such as Niels Bohr, Francis Aston, and Ernest Rutherford visited to give lectures. Best of all, the astronomy department’s Arthur Stanley Eddington, a highly accomplished mathematician and astronomer, had just returned from a successful mission to test relativity, thus making Albert Einstein famous. Having demonstrated that the Sun deflected the path of light in a manner consistent with Einstein’s theory, a phenomenon called gravitational lensing, Eddington gave a lecture to a packed hall at Trinity College, Cambridge, in autumn 1919.

Cecilia was so fascinated by Eddington’s lecture that she was unable to sleep for three days. She went back to her student room, where studying after 11pm was only allowed by candlelight, and wrote down the entire lecture from memory. The next day she went to her advisors and announced that she wished to drop botany and chemistry in favour of physics and astronomy. As astronomy was part of the mathematics department (and still is in many universities) she was not able to transfer courses; but she took her botany, chemistry and physics third-year exams a year early, allowing herself two years to concentrate on physics entirely and to attend astronomy lectures in her own time.

One night, Cambridge observatory held an open night to the public. Cecilia, who had been reading every astronomy book she could find, asked many questions of the demonstrator that he could not answer, such as why two stars clearly the same age were different colours. (Star colour is determined by its mass, not its age.) Eventually, the demonstrator scurried away to fetch Eddington, telling him frantically that “there’s a woman out there asking questions”.

Before he ran off to find Eddington, the demonstrator told Cecilia that she was now in charge, propelling her instantly from a member of the audience to an impromptu replacement lecturer. She began to tell the audience about the telescope’s current view, the “Andromeda spiral”, which was then thought to be a nebula inside our galaxy but is actually a spiral galaxy much like our own. She was holding a small child up to see the spiral when she realised that Eddington was standing behind her, and leapt at the chance to ask him for some careers advice.

To her delight, Eddington said that he “could see no insuperable objection” to her becoming an astronomer – words which sustained her many times later. Most female science graduates at the time became teachers, if anything. Botany was deemed a dainty and therefore acceptable subject for women; but physics and astronomy were male disciplines.

This was hit home very forcefully to Cecilia when she began to attend physics lectures by Ernest Rutherford, the hero of experimental science. Rutherford was very popular among his fellow scientists. His kindness was remarked on by many, but he seems to have enjoyed humiliating Cecilia. She was frequently the only women in his lectures, and the rules stipulated that she must sit alone at the front, which made her especially vulnerable to his condescending gaze. He would begin his lectures “pointedly” with “Ladies … and gentlemen.” Many male students laughed uproariously and even applauded and stamped their feet. Cecilia never forgot this, and for the rest of her life sat at the back of lecture theatres whenever she could.

To complicate matters, Rutherford’s only daughter, Eileen, was also a Newnham student, and she and Cecilia became friends. Eileen invited Cecilia to her house for dinner. She liked Eileen very much, so she went. Afterwards Eileen told her that her father had said: “She’s not interested in you, my dear, she’s just interested in me.”

Cecilia was incandescent. It was plain that nothing she did, academically or socially, would make Rutherford take her seriously. She seems to have made a conscious decision at this point to apply herself more to astrophysics than her own degree course, and eventually started skipping physics practicals in order to do her own research. If such behaviour seems defeatist or like a display of temper, it was also common sense. She wished to pursue a research career, and Rutherford treating her as an amusement rather than a scientist was a guarantee that physics would not be made available to her.

Rutherford’s behaviour must have been all the more insulting considering that he had previously worked with and admired another female physicist, Harriet Brooks, on radioactivity. Sadly, the very accomplished Brooks had been unable to continue her career due to a wish to get married. Her — female! — boss had insisted she resign, explaining that she would not hire a woman of such poor morals as to put her work before her husband, nor a less useful woman who put her husband before her work. Cecilia also worried that Rutherford might have touched on an element of truth, that she had hoped to gain his respect by entering his house and had thus accepted a favour, which she vowed never to do again.

She was much happier in the company of Eddington and his students and colleagues, where she clearly always felt welcome. On one occasion, she chose to introduce herself to an astronomer by shouting up to him as he worked on the roof, “I have come to ask why the Stark effect is not observed in stellar spectra.” The Stark effect is the shifting and splitting of spectral lines, and was yet another question that the science of the day had not answered. Cecilia examined the effect for herself in later years.

Eddington, who some found difficult and who is remembered for ridiculing Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’s predictions of the collapse of heavy stars, was a kind and insightful mentor to Cecilia. He set her two pieces of original research to do: one practical, one theoretical; one she could solve, and one she could not. The practical research was measuring the individual movements of the stars in an open cluster. There were photographic plates from 1903, 1908, 1921 and 1923 which provided a record of the positions of stars at those times. Although all stars move around the centre of our galaxy, they do so at different rates, and many clusters are gravitationally bound, so the stars exhibit motions relative to each other. Cecilia had therefore been given a 20 year record of star positions but, as their movement was three-dimensional, it was a complex problem. Cecilia’s work led to her first paper, Proper motions of the stars in the neighbourhood of M36 (NGC 1960). The paper is largely tables of each star’s position, but her language is already that of the established scientist, mentioning by name the use of many different scientists’ methods.

The other problem was a mathematical examination of the interior of a star. No one knew why stars shine. Some thought that it might be due to atomic energy, but Rutherford had pointed out that such energy was too feeble. Stars’ interiors could not be examined directly, of course, but it was possible to discern the mass of various stars orbiting each other by examining their rates of orbit. Eddington had already worked out that pressure and temperature must greatly increase towards the core of the star. He set Cecilia a problem of a “model star” and asked her to integrate all its properties, from the core to the surface. Calculators were not available at the time and there were so many unknowns, especially when she tried taking into account the star’s rotation, that she was unable to find a solution. Eddington reassured her that he too had tried and failed!

In her final year at Cambridge, a friend took Cecilia along to a talk in London given by an American astronomer: Harlow Shapley of Harvard College Observatory, Massachusetts. Cecilia, who could be a very serious person, disliked his attempts at humour in the lecture but was otherwise enthralled. She knew by then that “there was no future for me in England other than teaching” which, having tasted real scientific research, seemed to her like “an abyss opening beneath my feet”, and asked him if she could come and work under him. She was most upset not to get a First for her degree, later putting it down to both her own preoccupation with her astronomical research and sexism on the part of one of the examiners. However, she did win a scholarship, the second ever to be given to a woman, to move from Cambridge, England, to Cambridge, Massachusetts. She remained at the latter for her entire career.

A stellar discovery

When Cecilia arrived at Harvard in the autumn of 1923, thousands of photographs of stars had been taken. They were stored as black and white images on plates of glass, all still present in the archives of Harvard College Observatory. Each star is a black dot on a white background, with a tiny smear of a spectrum at its side, no more than a centimetre across.

Edward Charles Pickering, director of the observatory at Harvard from 1877 until he died in 1919, had discovered a method to measure multiple spectra of stars by putting a prism in front of a photographic plate. The prism splits the light into a rainbow, but some wavelengths were missing. Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff had discovered that when heated to a very high temperature, various elements produced very thin, bright lines of particular colours — often the very colours, or wavelengths, that were missing from the solar spectrum.

This provided a way to work how which elements were present by looking at which wavelengths are missing from the spectrum, because the burning elements absorb those wavelengths of light. Pickering, along with Williamina Fleming, studied these spectra and developed a classification system of stars which will be familiar to all students of astronomy. Pickering, Fleming and Fleming’s successor Annie Jump Cannon developed a classification system which included O, B, A, F, G, K and M-type stars, with later astronomers adding S, L and T. Fleming’s original classification had been alphabetical, with A stars apparently showing the most hydrogen. This system was then replaced by Cannon’s, which ranked stars by temperature, and ended up with O-type stars as the hottest.

Cecilia had expected to study photometry, the study of the positioning of stars, under Shapley, but her attention soon turned to spectroscopy, which was to become the love of her scientific life. Although the spectra could show which elements were present in stars, they could not shed light on their abundance. Things were complicated further by the fact that ionised atoms — atoms which have lost some of their electrons, which is the case for most atoms in stars — have different spectra to non-ionised atoms. The solar spectrum was a forest of lines, but it was clear that stars contained atoms of the same types that were found on Earth, despite the fact that their behaviour, as an unimaginably hot gas, was very different.

By the time that Cecilia arrived at Harvard, Pickering and Fleming had all died. But Cannon was still there, working under Harlow Shapley. Cecilia liked the rest of her new colleagues: Cannon was “extraordinarily kind” to her, and she got on especially Adelaide Ames, who had won the scholarship to Harvard a year before her and became Shapley’s scientific assistant. Cecilia and Adelaide gained the nickname of the “Heavenly Twins”, which is also a nickname for the stars Castor and Pollux in the constellation Gemini.

Shapley was a charismatic, encouraging and much-loved boss, known as “DD” standing for “Dear Director”; but he was manipulative and tightly controlled his workforce. Shapley noticed whenever a staff member was not at her desk, and wrote enquiring notes to any absentees. He planned work in “girl-hours” and played individuals off against each other. He asked Cecilia, “Do you realise how easily Miss Cannon could have chucked a monkey wrench into the works for you?”, creating worry that Cannon might jealously guard her thousands of spectra from the new student brought along to examine them. He brought in another student, Donald Menzel, to work on spectra alongside Cecilia, but set them up to regard each other as a threat rather than allow them to work together. He let Cecilia know he expected her to be “disturbed” at her fellow student’s presence, and insisted that Menzel work on cooler stars and Payne on hotter ones. Decades later, Menzel became her boss, and they finally became friends with Shapley no longer around.

Why do stars have different spectra?

Whilst working on the spectra problem, Payne discovered the work of the Indian physicist Meghnad Saha, whose Saha equation predicts what proportion of atoms of a particular element would be ionised at a given temperatures. She also found a 1923 paper by two Cambridge scientists, Fowler and Milne, which used Saha’s equation to analyse absorption lines in spectra.

Payne realised, using the work of all three plus the Harvard plates, that some elements were much more easily ionised than others. Calcium, for instance, let go of its electrons easily and thus produced many absorption lines. Hydrogen, on the other hand, only has one electron which is close to its nucleus and is thus hard to ionise.

As Payne described it in 1952: “At the sun’s temperature nearly all the calcium atoms are in the right state to emit light, but the atom of hydrogen is more recalcitrant, and is only about one-millionth as prone to emit as calcium at 6000°C. Hydrogen atoms are more than ten thousand times as common as atoms of calcium, but even so, the lines they produce in the spectrum of the sun are less than one-hundredth as intense.”

After struggling with the spectra for nearly two years, and impressing Shapley by refusing to publish a paper on her work until she was fully satisfied that she had solved the problem, Payne drafted what today would be considered her PhD thesis in the summer of 1925. It was to be examined by the imposing and especially accomplished astronomer Henry Norris Russell. Payne feared Russell, observing that “his word could make or break a young scientist.”

Payne had solved the problem of why stars had different spectra. It was nothing to do with their composition, as was thought, because they all had a very similar composition, and was everything to do with their temperature. Different types of atom become ionised at different temperatures, and so the amount of ionisation indicates the star’s temperature. For most stars, temperature is an indication of mass, and mass dictates all other properties such as a star’s luminosity, its lifetime, and whether it will die a white dwarf, a neutron star or a black hole.

The discovery was no less than the composition of the entire Universe. Ancient Greek astronomer Anaxagoras had proposed that the Sun was a ball of white-hot iron not much bigger than Greece and, until Payne’s thesis, predictions had not got much further than that. Iron and nickel are the most common elements on the Earth, though most are found in the core, and Payne had shown that other elements such as silicon and carbon existed in the same ratio in the Sun as on the Earth. That meant there was no particular reason to think that two rare gases, hydrogen and helium, should be abundant there.

She had concluded that hydrogen and helium were vastly more abundant than on Earth, hydrogen one million times more common than most other elements. But her examiner Russell, probably out of sensible caution rather than malice, told her that result was impossible so Payne pragmatically watered down her thesis. She still gave her figures for hydrogen and helium, whilst hedging her bets by stating that they were probably “spurious and almost certainly not real”.

Payne called the book of her thesis Stellar Atmospheres: A Contribution to the Observational Study of Matter at High Temperatures. It was over 200 pages long, yet highly readable, explaining all the new quantum theories that had made her findings possible. It was, said her greatly respected colleague, Otto Struve, “undoubtedly the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy” and “full of useful suggestions for the practical worker. Nearly every page contains references to problems which are open to investigation by the spectroscopist.”

Denied her due

Payne’s book was very well received by the astronomical community, selling 600 copies, which was rather a lot for a book of its type. But not everyone gave Payne her due. Her old Cambridge mentor, Eddington, wrote that the result was “less extraordinary than one might think” and that perhaps she had discovered that “there was a lot of hydrogen on the Sun” rather than inside it. He thought that, like the Earth, perhaps the heaviest elements were in the core and the lightest on the surface. In fact, Payne’s result rescued Eddington’s own hypothesis about how the Sun shone: nuclear fusion required the conversion of hydrogen into helium. And Payne’s old nemesis, Rutherford, is said to have remarked triumphantly to a friend: “My daughter’s friend is doing well in astrophysics, an understatement in the light of Stellar Atmospheres.”

Payne’s result should have made her world-famous, but it was not fully accepted until a few years later, when Henry Norris Russell himself drew together enough independent evidence to be certain that it was not a mistake. Research by Stewart and Unsöld, working independently on spectral lines, also showed a huge abundance of hydrogen. Four years after Payne’s thesis, Russell later wrote of the various strands of evidence, “The most important previous determination of the abundance of the elements by astrophysical means is that by Miss Payne.”

Unfortunately, Russell himself is often credited with the discovery, rather than Payne, Stewart and Unsöld.

Owen Gingerich, Astronomer Emeritus at Harvard University, who prides himself on being Payne’s favourite ever PhD student, suggests that today’s sense of injustice at Payne’s obscurity may be somewhat exaggerated. “In the end it was Russell who had the connections and the maturity to bring the many threads of evidence together, and the prestige to persuade the community of the validity of the result,” he wrote in 2000. “Cecilia Payne’s thesis had clearly played a seminal role in the development of astrophysics … Like Moses, she had glimpsed the promised land, but hadn’t quite got there.”

She had, however, other achievements for which she seems to have earned at least unofficial respect at the time. She had made stars simple: they only appeared to have different compositions, and different spectra, because their different masses and temperatures led to different states of ionisation. They were, fundamentally, all the same. She had, as Gingerich states, solved “a hot problem in astrophysics. Her solution was so ingenious and satisfactory that it essentially turned the temperature problem into a non-problem, with the result that astronomers tended to forget the significance of this achievement and its consequences.”

Payne was young, but the first to make such an outrageous proposal as that hydrogen, a rare element on Earth, should be the most abundant in the Universe. She is well known to modern astronomers, but not to the general public. Modern astronomy textbooks mention little or none of her work, while huge space is devoted to equations developed by other astronomers from her day. Perhaps it is not so much her contemporaries who were unjust, but ours. The cosmology writer Marcus Chown suggests, only half-jokingly, that there is a curse on her: when he wrote an article about her for the New Scientist magazine, an error at the printer’s removed all her face except for the tip of her hat!

It is not known what Payne herself thought of her comparative obscurity. A modest woman, she never seems to have mentioned it to any friends or family. But she once hinted to Gingerich that she had been sure that she was right about the hydrogen and helium all the time.

And, perhaps without ever knowing, she did something else very special. The physicist Richard Feynman had a younger sister, Joan, who passionately wished to become a scientist but was told by family, teachers and religious leaders that it was not a possible move for a woman. But one day, Richard gave Joan an astronomy book. On page 407, there was a table named “Relative strengths of the Mg+ absorption line at 4,481 ångstroms … from Stellar Atmospheres by Cecilia Payne.” It was this that proved to Joan that a woman could be a scientist, and despite obstacles even greater than Payne’s, she too became an astrophysicist, specialising in magnetospheric studies and the Earth’s aurora.

Briefly losing her bravery

After the publication of her thesis, Payne’s scholarship ran out and it was time for her to look for a job. She was offered a position at the Lick Observatory in California; Shapley was annoyed when he heard this, feeling entitled to have been the first point of contact. He offered her a job at Harvard College Observatory. Young, inexperienced and immensely trusting, Payne did not know or think to ask about employment conditions, and accepted on the spot. She was thus employed as Shapley’s “technical assistant” on such a low salary that she did not dare tell it to her family.

Harvard, sadly, was still taking a dim view of female graduates and employees. At the time of her thesis, Shapley informed Payne that the chairman of the Physics department, Theodore Lyman, had refused to accept a female candidate for a PhD thesis, and was reluctant to sign her application for her PhD, although he finally did. Shapley also told Payne that Lawrence Lowell, the President of Harvard, would never allow a woman to have an official position there while he was alive. Nevertheless, Shapley created the Department of Astronomy specially for Payne, although it was a double-edged sword as she was kept as a low-status worker for many years.

She also lost most of her freedom to choose her own research. Shapley made her the editor of all Harvard College Observatory’s publications and requested that she turn her attention to photometry, an important but “arid field” of rigorous precision. Her “memory and imagination”, her ability to bring many strands of science together, were no longer of any use.

Payne was also not permitted to do much practical observing, for what now seem quite ridiculous reasons. Shapley’s correspondence with other astronomers shows that she would not have been permitted to use other observatories. The Royal Observatory in London required any astronomers using it to climb a rope, something thought inappropriate for a woman. Another excuse was that she “would not be safe from blacks” whilst using the observatory — racism used to excuse sexism. And when a position for a spectroscopist at Harvard College Observatory came up, Shapley refused Payne’s application and employed Donald Menzel to do the work Payne loved best.

Her talent thus wasted, Payne seems to have lost much of her younger bravery. When her second book, The Stars of High Luminosity was published, it was much influenced by Shapley, who did not believe in an effect called reddening: as blue light is more easily scattered by particles, it is filtered out as it passes through dust clouds in space. Hence, faraway stars become redder. She was persuaded to ignore this effect in the book, and cursed herself when it became clear that reddening is a very important effect in astronomy.

She was also dissuaded by Shapley and Russell from publishing more spectroscopic work on the Stark effect. She had found that the Stark effect did exist in some stellar spectra, although the conventional wisdom was that it did not, but took their advice to keep quiet. Later, Otto Struve came to the same conclusion, and published. She told him about her earlier work, and he offered to credit her, but she was so angry with herself that she refused.

“I had given in to Authority when I believed I was right,” she recalled over 50 years later. “That is [an] example of How Not To Do Research. I note it here as a warning to the young. If you are sure of your facts, you should defend your position … Loyalty and devotion are not sufficient to qualify one to do research.”

In the early 1930s, Payne threatened to accept a job elsewhere, and bravely wrote Russell a long letter detailing her grievances: that Shapley kept ignoring her in favour of other individuals; that she was “quite honestly … worth more than $2300”; that her lectures were not listed on the catalogue and she was an invisible member of staff — and also kept invisible socially, astronomers’ wives were in more contact with each other than she was with anyone. She asked for a pay rise, for time off to do her own research elsewhere as did a male colleague named Plaskett (who always talked to her “as a woman, never as a scientist”), and more social inclusion. Her threat seems to have worked. She did receive a small pay rise, and Shapley made her a member of the Faculty Club and employed another woman to edit the Harvard College Observatory publications for three months a year.

One still wonders why she remained at Harvard. Possibly she feared that things would be even worse elsewhere. Doubtless she recognised that her low status was not personal, but would be applied to any female astronomer. Furthermore, Shapley was a charismatic man and great conversationalist, who seems to have made her feel ignored and special by turns. She once thought she might succeed him to run the Observatory.

Otto Struve planned to come and work there at one point, and Shapley’s encouraging letters to him that all his colleagues would be delighted to work with Struve mention Payne with exactly the same respect as the others. But Struve eventually declined the job, telling Payne privately that Shapley had promised “Miss Payne will give up spectroscopy” and, knowing her love of the subject, he was unwilling to allow this to happen.

Personal loss, compassion and love

In 1932-3, three of Payne’s friends, including her colleague Adelaide Ames, died suddenly. Payne was heartbroken, and berated herself for having been so attached to her work that she had not spent enough time with other people. She fell into a severe depression. She was encouraged to travel, and visited friends and colleagues in England, Germany, Sweden, Finland and Estonia. Due to arrive in Germany in summer 1933 for the Astronomische Gesellschaft astronomy conference, she took a two-week detour to Russia. Her colleagues, fearful for her safety, did their best to dissuade her — one had a quarrel with her that brought her to tears, telling her untruthfully that her Russian-inscribed visa had already expired. The American Embassy in Estonia informed her that she could go, but nobody would be able to help her if anything had happened.

But Payne was not so easily daunted. She braved the lack of knowledge of Russian, and of Soviet guards searching her and her luggage on the train, and went to meet an astronomer friend in Leningrad named Gerasimoviç. Payne was appalled and shaken at the extreme poverty — the lack of food, the poor state of the Observatory — and “the atmosphere of tension”. The Russians were stealing each other’s food and materials in order to survive, and afraid that the Germans might invade at any time. A young woman begged Payne to help her leave the country, but Payne could not think of any way to do so. When she left, she knew she would never see her hosts again.

When she arrived in Germany, she saw the same anxiety she had seen in Russia. People were nervously saluting those in Nazi uniform and looking over their shoulders to see if they were being overheard. On the first day of the conference, she was approached by a young man who asked in German if she was Miss Payne. He gave her a note to read. It turned out that Sergei Gaposchkin was an astronomer who had been made jobless by the Nazis. Several of the other astronomers were worried about him and hoped to help him find a job in America.

Payne lay awake all night. Some days later, on a rattling train between London and Cambridge, she wrote a long letter to Shapley. Gaposchkin, she explained, was a Russian who had ended up in Germany by accident after a storm had blown his boat across the Black Sea and officials refused to let him go back across the border. He had eventually settled in Berlin doing manual labour while attending free lectures, including by Einstein, to learn German and slowly gain a PhD thesis on eclipsing binary stars — stars that orbit each other in a plane within the line of sight of the observer, so they eclipse each other by turns. Gaposchkin had been working as an astronomer under a man named Guthnick, who had been forced by the authorities to let him go. Gaposchkin now had no income, had again been refused access back to Russia, and was in danger of being sent to a concentration camp.

Payne devoted one perfunctory paragraph of the letter to update Shapley on their astronomical colleagues and her visit to Cambridge. The rest, in between apologies for the train’s motion affecting her handwriting, is about Gaposchkin: her impression of his work (“good but not brilliant”), the other astronomers’ concern, and her conviction that he must be rescued. “I think we should find a place for him in America, probably at Harvard. It seems like a sort of national and personal responsibility. I have never seen a man more determinedly bent on a scientific career. Already to get his PhD he has gone through more hardship than most of us.” She asked how to get him into America (he was stateless and had no passport) and how to pay him; she even volunteered to pay him out of her own salary if all else failed.

One hesitates before including the tale of “how she met her husband” in a short biography of a female astronomer, given that a male astronomer’s biography would be unlikely to ascribe a wife such significance. But Sergei Gaposchkin’s subsequent travel to and employment at Harvard, due to Cecilia Payne, tells both of Payne’s compassion and quiet influence, and of the political situation in the 1930s that went on to destroy many scientists’ friendships as well as so many lives.

The variable stars team

Sergei and Cecilia married in March 1934. A story went around that they eloped, and Shapley announced it at a meeting which caused Annie Jump Cannon to fall down in a dead faint. In fact, they told their colleagues they were getting married, Shapley sent them red roses, and they went on a long honeymoon around various observatories in the western states. They had three children: Edward, Katherine and Peter, in 1935, 1937 and 1940.

Gaposchkin and Payne-Gaposchkin were given offices far away from each other, and graduate students thought this was “to keep the two stormy personalities from asserting themselves too conspicuously”. Three years later, in 1938, Payne-Gaposchkin finally received an official position in the department at which she had worked for 13 years: the Phillips Astronomer. Sergei was known in the department by his first name, and Payne-Gaposchkin became known as “Mrs G”.

Payne-Gaposchkin’s earlier work on photometry had not, after all, been utterly wasted (although newer equipment at other observatories had made much of it redundant), for she was aware that there were thousands of variable stars waiting to be found and classified. The Gaposchkins classified 1,512 variable stars using photographic plates from 1898, back in Pickering’s early years, until the present, and making over a million observations in total. Variable stars, previously considered an anomaly, turned out to have many different properties. The Gaposchkins identified 11 types, including Henrietta Leavitt’s Cepheid variables and Sergei’s own eclipsing binaries.

One of Payne-Gaposchkin’s fascinations was novae, or new stars that seemed to appear from nowhere, and worked on them for many years. In 1939, she and Sergei travelled to England to speak at a conference on novae and white dwarf stars, which were then thought to be two separate phenomena. White dwarfs are dead stars that have burnt all their hydrogen; novae are brief explosions of material around a white dwarf; and supernova are stars that have exploded. She was delighted to see her old friend and mentor Eddington again, although it was for the last time. World War II broke as their ship made its way home across the Atlantic.

In 1940, Payne was invited to give a guest lecture at another university. She was, unfortunately, pregnant and the time. A flurry of apologetic and embarrassed correspondence went between the establishments about her “condition” and the questionable suitability of her public appearance, without anyone, apparently, even asking her opinion. Shapley wrote to Payne-Gaposchkin that he must formally disapprove of her plans to go. Eventually, the lecture was called off.

Slow improvements

Payne-Gaposchkin’s job remained low status and, depressed by the war, she suffered occasional bad temper and jealousy when she witnessed male colleagues automatically being treated better than she was. By this time, however, the loneliness and lack of confidence she had felt a decade ago seem to have mellowed to some degree. She was “excruciatingly busy” lecturing, writing and socialising with colleagues.

In 1944, when Cambridge finally got around to awarding degrees to their female students, Payne-Gaposchkin wrote to Newnham to request a qualification, and got it. She was in touch with astronomers around the world, fascinated by all branches of astronomy.

In 1952, as a result of a lecture series she gave about the evolution of stars, Payne-Gaposchkin wrote a popular science book, Stars in the Making. Two years later, she published Introduction to Astronomy, a textbook for all astronomy students. “Most people agree that this is the best general book on astronomy available in the English-speaking world,” said the flyleaf, along with a quotation from the Times Educational Supplement: “The most complete, balanced and readable elementary account of the universe that the reviewer knows.” A great lover of many subjects besides science, she mischievously encouraged the reader to check art galleries for “impossible moons”, such as a full moon near a sunset.

In 1956, Harlow Shapley retired. Payne-Gaposchkin, as a woman, was not considered for his successor. The candidate finally appointed was none other than Donald Menzel, the one given so much spectroscopy work for which young Cecilia Payne had longed — and who was kept so separate from her that she did not mention any of his work on the spectra of cool stars in her groundbreaking 1925 thesis. Menzel, however, was more modern and generous than Shapley. He was shocked to learn Payne-Gaposchkin’s salary, doubled it, and awarded her the title of Phillips Professor and position of Chairman of the Astronomy Department.

Payne-Gaposchkin sent a handwritten note to all the female astronomy students to invite them to celebrate with her in the library. She made a speech in which she said: “I find myself cast in the unlikely role of a thin wedge.” One of the students recalled: “It brought down the house. She was a very large person, but she could make fun of herself and see the humour of the whole business.”

Fighting for women’s right to speak

In her mid-fifties by the time she finally gained the position she should have had for decades, Payne-Gaposchkin had so many duties, such as supervising assistants and teaching, that she had little time for her own research. She and Gaposchkin, however, had undertaken two more gigantic variable star surveys. The two small irregular galaxies visible from the southern skies, the Magellanic Clouds, had been jealously kept by Shapley for his own work, but with his retirement they were able to make millions more observations. They discovered a huge amount about stellar evolution, and developed a whole new classification system.

Fellow female astronomer, Vera Rubin, who is largely responsible for the discovery of dark matter, once asked Payne-Gaposchkin if being a woman had made any difference in her career. “Oh no,” she replied at once, “it had made no difference.” But she approached Rubin the next day, saying “You know those questions you asked me last night? I decided I had given you all the wrong answers.” Rubin recalls: “She then proceeded to detail the many injustices she had ignored, in order to do her astronomy. I puzzled for years over this turn-about. Now I understand that these indignities only bothered her at times. Most likely, throughout her life she realised she was taking steps never before open to a woman, and accepted them as part of the difficulties of being first. As a pioneer, she suffered from many of the prejudices of her male colleagues. But she also must have recognised that her achievements not only advanced science, but also opened doors for succeeding generations of woman astronomers.”

Rubin bravely tried to have Payne-Gaposchkin nominated for membership of the US National Academy of Sciences, which was only open to men, but Payne-Gaposchkin died before enough progress had been made to allow her election.

In 1975, Payne-Gaposchkin received the ultimate honour for any astronomer: the Henry Norris Russell Prize. She was the first woman to receive it, and there have only been three others since. The prize’s recipient gives the most prestigious lecture at the American Astronomical Society meeting, which takes place in a different state every year. Payne-Gaposchkin gave her talk, Fifty years of novae, in Hawaii in 1977, the full text of which is now online. She began by telling the audience about the “emotional thrill … [that] engenders what Thomas Huxley calls the Divine Dipsomania” the young scientist feels upon being the first to make a discovery, and the old scientist gaining the same delight in seeing many such discoveries grow together to make a picture, like many artists completing a drawing between them. She told the audience many stories of her and her colleagues’ remarks and observations over the last five and a half decades, took them through the different stages of a nova.

Payne-Gaposchkin published many books throughout her career, and her papers were referenced in other scientific papers, on average, over 100 times every 10 years. As she neared the end of her life, she seems to have been asked by friends and family to write an autobiography. Never one for the spotlight, one senses her reluctance to do so in a letter she wrote a friend, in which she explained that she wished to give an overview of astronomy’s progress over the twentieth century and was finding it impossible to omit herself. She called the book The Dyer’s Hand, taken from Shakespeare’s Sonnect CXI, as he describes his career in the theatre: “My name receives a brand, And almost thence my nature is subdued, To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.”

The Dyer’s Hand was privately printed and is clearly only intended for friends, colleagues and family. It contains no scientific explanations, as those were all tackled in her other books, but mentions many recollections of scientific findings. As well as details of her family life, it also contains both calm and resentment at the discrimination she faced as a woman in science. “We were scientists, we were scholars (neither of those words has a gender),” she writes at one point, recalling how many of her colleagues never treated her any differently. But she also makes it only too clear how other colleagues, not to mention society and the universities’ rules, closed many doors to her based solely on her gender.

Cecilia never lost her love of travel, but returned home very poorly after a long trip abroad in 1979. Chain smoking had been a habit of hers since the 1920s, and she died of lung cancer that December. She donated her body to scientific research. Sergei never got over his bereavement.

A few years later, her daughter Katherine Haramundanis and a few other astronomers re-printed The Dyer’s Hand as a book for publication, with four introductions on various aspects of her life and work and also including a delightful essay written about her by a Cambridge friend, one of the friends she had lost in 1933. And to mark the 100th anniversary of her birth in 2000, a symposium was held at Harvard College Observatory and a small book produced, The Starry Universe, with contributions from many of Payne-Gaposchkin’s colleagues, as well as Katherine.

In her long life, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin helped lay the foundations for both the use of spectroscopy in astrophysics, and for the advancement of women in astronomy. Between then and now, both male and female astronomers have signed documents and worked hard to improve women’s situation. Today, about 25 percent of astronomers are female.

Dr Helen Walker of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, and founder of the She is an Astronomer project which launched in 2009, writes firmly that women are held back not by intellect or preference to study other subjects but by social expectations, for some countries have no female astronomers, and in others, women make up over 50 percent. Walker persuaded the International Astronomical Union to put out a resolution to find ways to redress the balance: In 2010, a conference was held to discuss women in astronomy, and a website set up with the biographies of many historical female astronomers, a third of them from Harvard College Observatory. A calendar was printed, including Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Leavitt and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.

Today, following such efforts, and with the explosive popularity of the internet, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s legacy is beginning to revive.


I first thank Chris Lintott for alerting me to Suw Charman-Anderson’s Ada Lovelace Day book project, and for being enthusiastic about my research from the beginning, including recommending me to Harvard and Cambridge’s archives. Marcus Chown effectively introduced me to spectroscopy and Payne-Gaposchkin in his book “The Magic Furnace”, and encourages me to break the “curse” that seems to prevent her from receiving published recognition today. Alison Doane kindly showed me the plate stacks at Harvard College Observatory. Jonathan McDowell of Harvard University helped me find many of her papers and showed me around the department where he now works and she used to; he also introduced me to Owen Gingerich, who told me many of his memories of her and gave me a copy of “The Starry Universe” which is not available for sale or in any library in the UK – his contribution to which was invaluable material to me. Ultimate thanks, of course, go to Katherine Haramundanis. I am eternally grateful that she met me in Boston to answer my endless questions about her mother, gave me permission to view archival material, and has treated my intrusion out of nowhere with nothing but kindness and welcome.

Further reading

A few of the quotations and anecdotes, particularly regarding Sergei Gaposchkin, come from conversations with Katherine Haramundanis and from the Harvard University Archives. However, most of the material is available in books and online.

Byers, N & Williams, G (eds) (2006), Out of the Shadows: Contributions of Twentieth-Century Women to Physics, Cambridge University Press.

Chown, M (1999), The Magic Furnace, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Katherine Haramundanis, K (ed) (1984), The Dyer’s Hand: An autobiography and other recollections

Payne-Gaposchkin, C (1952) Stars in the Making, London: Methuen

Payne-Gaposchkin, C (1954), Introduction to Astronomy, Prentice-Hall.

Philip, AGD & Koopman, RA (eds) (2000), The Starry Universe, New York: The L. Davis Press.

About the author

Alice Sheppard is an amateur astronomer, astrophysics student and “citizen scientist”, the lead moderator of the discussion forum of the public astronomy website Galaxy Zoo, and Community Manager for ExCiteS, UCL. She writes occasional articles for the Astronomy Now and Society for Popular Astronomy magazines, and gives regular talks on astronomy at Skeptics in the Pub, astronomical societies, and her charity lecture series, Galactic Orchids, which raises funds to fight female genital mutilation. She was also a forum moderator for the 2009-10 She is an Astronomer project and an organiser of and speaker at the 2010 conference. She is working on a biography of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and invites anyone who knew her or works in similar fields to get in touch.

Academic website: https://www.geog.ucl.ac.uk/research/research-centres/excites/people/alice-sheppard
Twitter: @PenguinGalaxy

Posted in STEM Stories.