Like many of the wonderful women that are going to be featured on this blog, many of them are relatively unknown despite their massive contributions to their field. So, today we are focusing on the work of: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.
An English-American astronomer, she won a scholarship to study botany, physics and chemistry at Newnham College, Cambridge University in 1919, and although she completed her studies and was elected as a member of the Royal Astronomical society, during that time Cambridge did not award degrees to women.
It was during her time at Cambridge that her fascination with astronomy was born after she attended a lecture about her lecturers eclipse expedition to test Einstein’s theory of relativity.
After meeting Harlow Shapely of Harvard College observatory, she chose to leave England for the US to pursue a graduate program in astronomy.
Cecilia was the second student to join the fellowship program at the Observatory to encourage women to study there. Alongside that, she became the first person to earn a PhD in astronomy for her thesis “Stellar Atmospheres, A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars”. With astronomer Otto Struve characterized it as “undoubtedly the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy”.
By the time she was 25 she had been awarded her PhD and had published six papers on stellar atmospheres.
Her contributions allowed her to relate the spectal classes of stars into actual temperatures. She also showed that the variation in stellar absorption lines was due to differing amounts of ionization that occurred at different temperatures, and not due to the different abundances of elements.
Although her male superiors convinced her to retract the findings on stellar hydrogen, she suggested that silicon, carbon, and other common metals seen in the Sun were found in about the same relative amounts as on Earth but the helium and particularly hydrogen were vastly more abundant, by about a factor of one million in the case of hydrogen, concluding that hydrogen was the main constituent of stars.
Yet despite all this she received little pay and had a low status holding no official position, serving as a technical assistant to Shapely from 1927-1938.
Later in 1938, she was presented with the title of astronomer and in 1954 when a new Director, Donald Menzel, was appointed, she became the first women to be appointed as a full-professor from the faculty at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and then the first woman to be the head of a department at Harvard.
Evemn after her thesis she studies stars to understand the structure of the Milky Way, then along with her assistant she studied and make over 1,250,000 observations, that helped pave the way for understanding stellar evolution.
Her PhD is considered a pivitol point of not just women in astronomy, but for the Harvard College Observatory as well. In 1934 she won the Annie Cannon Award in astronomy, and the asteroid 2039 Payne-Gaposchkin is named in her honour.
So have you heard about Cecelia?