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

Originally 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 l...

 

 

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Posted in STEM Stories.