Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin
Credit:Royal Astronomical Society 
care of the Smithsonian Institution

Occupation: Astronomer

Year born: 1900

Research Areas: Stars, Spectroscopy

 

"No idea should be suppressed. … And it applies to ideas that look like nonsense. We must not forget that some of the best ideas seemed like nonsense at first. The truth will prevail in the end. Nonsense will fall of its own weight, by a sort of intellectual law of gravitation. If we bat it about, we shall only keep an error in the air a little longer. And a new truth will go into orbit."

Source: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections (1996)

 

Early Life

Cecilia was born in Wendover, England. Her mother was interested in lots of different topics like nature, music and theatre. Cecilia spent lots of time reading in her home's library. At the age of 19, she won a scholarship to Cambridge University to study science. During that time, Cecilia went to a talk given by Arthur Eddington. Arthur talked about his recent trip to Africa to observe the stars near a solar eclipse. This sparked Cecilia's interest in astronomy.

Career Highlights

In 1923, Cecilia finished her studies. However, she did not get a degree because Cambridge would not give them to women at that time. Cecilia knew that to work in astronomy she would have to leave the UK. So at the age of 23, she left England to go to Harvard College Observatory, USA. She became one of a handful of woman there studying astronomy and was the first to earn a PhD.

Cecilia's research used spectroscopy to find out what stars are made of. Spectroscopy involves splitting the light from stars into a spectrum. Cecilia was able to match the spectra of stars to their temperatures. During her work, Cecilia found that the stars contained much more hydrogen and helium than the Earth. This challenged the view of other scientists that the stars and the Earth were made of the same material. Cecilia was persuaded to admit she may have made an error. A few years later, one of her examiners got the same results as Cecilia. He got the credit for her discovery.

Cecilia stayed at Harvard studying stars until she died, aged 79. For many years she received little pay and did not have an official job. After 15 years work, she was given the title of 'astronomer'. Three decades into her career, a new Director took over the Observatory and Cecilia became the first female professor there. She also later became the first woman to head a department at Harvard.

Legacy

Cecilia was a role model for many women who were interested in physics and astronomy. An asteroid, and a volcano on Venus are both named after her in her honour.

Other Interests

Cecilia's children have said that their mother loved to read and was talented at knitting and sewing.