Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin (May 10, 1900 – December 7, 1979) was a British-born American astronomer and astrophysicist who, in 1925, proposed in her PhD. thesis an explanation for the composition of stars in terms of the relative abundances of hydrogen and helium.[1]

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin
A woman in a white dress stands in front of a stone university building and looks down and to one side.
BornMay 10, 1900
Wendover, Buckinghamshire, England
DiedDecember 7, 1979 (aged 79)
Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.
ResidenceLexington, Massachusetts
CitizenshipBritish, American (from 1931)
EducationSt Paul's Girls' School
Alma materNewnham College, Cambridge, Radcliffe College (Harvard College Observatory)
Known forExplanation of spectra of Sun, more than 3,000,000 observations of variable stars
AwardsAnnie Jump Cannon Award in Astronomy (1934), Rittenhouse Medal (1961), Award of Merit from Radcliffe College (1952), Henry Norris Russell Prize (1976)
Scientific career
FieldsAstronomy, astrophysics
InstitutionsHarvard College Observatory, Harvard University
Doctoral advisorHarlow Shapley, Arthur Eddington
Doctoral studentsHelen Sawyer Hogg, Joseph Ashbrook, Frank Kameny, Frank Drake, Paul W. Hodge
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin signature

Early life

Cecilia Helena Payne was one of three children born in Wendover, England,[2] to Emma Leonora Helena (née Pertz) and Edward John Payne, a London barrister, historian and accomplished musician. Her mother came from a Prussian family and had two distinguished uncles, historian Georg Heinrich Pertz and the Swedenborgian writer James John Garth Wilkinson.[3] Cecilia Payne's father died when she was four years old, forcing her mother to raise the family on her own.

She attended St Paul's Girls' School. In 1919, she won a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge University, where she read botany, physics, and chemistry. Here, she attended a lecture by Arthur Eddington on his 1919 expedition to the island of Principe in the Gulf of Guinea off the west coast of Africa to observe and photograph the stars near a solar eclipse as a test of Einstein's general theory of relativity. This sparked her interest in astronomy.[4] She said of the lecture, 'The result was a complete transformation of my world picture. My world had been so shaken that I experienced something very like a nervous breakdown.'[5] She completed her studies, but was not awarded a degree because of her sex; Cambridge did not grant degrees to women until 1948.[6]

Payne realized that her only career option in the U.K. was to become a teacher, so she looked for grants that would enable her to move to the United States. After being introduced to Harlow Shapley, the Director of the Harvard College Observatory, who had just begun a graduate program in astronomy, she left England in 1923.[4] This was made possible by a fellowship to encourage women to study at the observatory. The first student on the fellowship was Adelaide Ames (1922) and the second was Payne.


Shapley persuaded Payne to write a doctoral dissertation, and so in 1925 she became the first person to earn a PhD in astronomy from Radcliffe College (now part of Harvard).[4] Her thesis was "Stellar Atmospheres, A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars".[7][1]

Payne was able to accurately relate the spectral classes of stars to their actual temperatures by applying the ionization theory developed by Indian physicist Meghnad Saha. She showed that the great variation in stellar absorption lines was due to differing amounts of ionization at different temperatures, not to different amounts of elements. She found that silicon, carbon, and other common metals seen in the Sun's spectrum were present in about the same relative amounts as on Earth, in agreement with the accepted belief of the time, which held that the stars had approximately the same elemental composition as the Earth. However, she found that helium and particularly hydrogen were vastly more abundant (for hydrogen, by a factor of about one million).[8] Thus, her thesis established that hydrogen was the overwhelming constituent of the stars (see Metallicity), and accordingly was the most abundant element in the Universe.[9]

When Payne's dissertation was reviewed, astronomer Henry Norris Russell dissuaded her from concluding that the composition of the Sun was predominantly hydrogen and thus very different from that of the Earth, as it contradicted the accepted wisdom at the time. She consequently described the result in her thesis as "spurious".[9] Russell realized she was correct four years later after having derived the same result by different means and publishing it in 1929. He acknowledged Payne's work and discovery admiringly in his paper but he is often credited for the conclusions she reached.[10][11][12]


Cecilia Helena Payne Gaposchkin (1900-1979) (3)
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin at work

After her doctorate, Payne studied stars of high luminosity in order to understand the structure of the Milky Way. Later she surveyed all the stars brighter than the tenth magnitude. She then studied variable stars, making over 1,250,000 observations with her assistants. This work later was extended to the Magellanic Clouds, adding a further 2,000,000 observations of variable stars. These data were used to determine the paths of stellar evolution. She published her conclusions in her second book, Stars of High Luminosity (1930).[8] Her observations and analysis, with her husband, Sergei Gaposchkin, of variable stars laid the basis for all subsequent work on them.[1]

Payne-Gaposchkin remained scientifically active throughout her life, spending her entire academic career at Harvard. At first, she had no official position, merely serving as a technical assistant to Shapley from 1927 to 1938. At one point she considered leaving Harvard because of her low status and poor salary. However, Shapley made efforts to improve her position, and in 1938 she was given the title of "Astronomer". She later asked to have this title changed to Phillips Astronomer. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1943.[13] None of the courses she taught at Harvard were recorded in the catalogue until 1945.[1]

When Donald Menzel became Director of the Harvard College Observatory in 1954, he tried to improve her appointment, and in 1956 she became the first woman to be promoted to full professor from within the faculty at Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences.[4] Later, with her appointment to the Chair of the Department of Astronomy, she also became the first woman to head a department at Harvard.[14]

Her students included Helen Sawyer Hogg, Joseph Ashbrook, Frank Drake, Harlan Smith and Paul W. Hodge, who all made important contributions to astronomy.[14] She also supervised Frank Kameny, who became a prominent advocate of gay rights.[15]

Payne-Gaposchkin retired from active teaching in 1966 and was subsequently appointed Emeritus Professor of Harvard.[16] She continued her research as a member of staff at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and edited the journals and books published by Harvard Observatory for twenty years.[17]

Influence on female scientists

According to G. Kass-Simon and Patricia Farnes, Payne's career marked a turning point at Harvard College Observatory. Under the direction of Harlow Shapley and Dr E. J. Sheridan (whom Payne-Gaposchkin described as a mentor),[18] the observatory had already offered more opportunities in astronomy to women than did other institutions, and notable achievements had been made earlier in the century by Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury, Annie Jump Cannon, and Henrietta Swan Leavitt. However, with Payne-Gaposchkin's PhD, women entered the 'mainstream'.

The trail she blazed into the largely male-dominated scientific community was an inspiration to many. For example, she became a role model for astrophysicist Joan Feynman. Feynman's mother and grandmother had dissuaded her from pursuing science, since they believed women were not physically capable of understanding scientific concepts.[19][20][21] But Feynman was later inspired by Payne-Gaposchkin when she came across some of her work in an astronomy textbook. Seeing Payne-Gaposchkin's research published in this way convinced Feynman that she could, in fact, follow her scientific passions.[19]

Personal life

In her autobiography, Payne tells that while in school she created an experiment on the efficacy of prayer by dividing her exams in two groups, praying for success only on one, the other one being a control group. Later on, she became an agnostic.[22]

In 1931, Payne became an American citizen. On a tour through Europe in 1933, she met Russian-born astrophysicist Sergei I. Gaposchkin in Germany. She helped him get a visa to the United States and they married in March 1934, settling in the historic town of Lexington, Massachusetts, a short commute from Harvard. They had three children, Edward, Katherine, and Peter. Her daughter remembers her as "an inspired seamstress, an inventive knitter, and a voracious reader." She and her family were members of the First Unitarian Church there, where she taught Sunday school.[23] She was also active with the Quakers.[24]

Payne's younger brother, Humfry Payne (1902–1936), who married Dilys Powell, the author and film critic, became director of the British School of Archaeology at Athens.[25]


At the end of her life, Payne had her autobiography privately printed as The Dyer's Hand. It was later reprinted in Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections (Cambridge University Press, 1984).

Her academic books include:

  • The Stars of High Luminosity (1930)
  • Variable Stars (1938)
  • Variable Stars and Galactic Structure (1954)
  • Introduction to Astronomy (1954)
  • The Galactic Novae (1957)

Significant papers include:

  • —— (1936), "On the Physical Condition of the Supernovae", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 22 (6): 332–6, Bibcode:1936PNAS...22..332P, doi:10.1073/pnas.22.6.332, JSTOR 86556, PMC 1076773, PMID 16588077
  • Whipple, F. L.; —— (1936), "On the Bright Line Spectrum of Nova Herculis", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 22 (4): 195–200, Bibcode:1936PNAS...22..195W, doi:10.1073/pnas.22.4.195, JSTOR 86718, PMC 1076741, PMID 16577695
  • —— (1941), "Obituary – Annie Jump Cannon", Science, 93 (2419): 443–444, Bibcode:1941Sci....93..443P, doi:10.1126/science.93.2419.443, PMID 17820707




The reward of the young scientist is the emotional thrill of being the first person in the history of the world to see something or to understand something. Nothing can compare with that experience... The reward of the old scientist is the sense of having seen a vague sketch grow into a masterly landscape.
—Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (accepting the Henry Norris Russell Prize from the American Astronomical Society)[28]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Turner, J. (March 16, 2001). "Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin". Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics. UCLA. Archived from the original on October 12, 2012. Retrieved October 10, 2012.
  2. ^ Gingerich, O. (1982). "Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin". Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society. 23: 450. Bibcode:1982QJRAS..23..450G. Retrieved August 28, 2018 – via Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
  3. ^ Payne, H.; Mackworth-Young, G. (1981). La scultura arcaica in marmo dell'Acropoli. La storiografia della scultura greca del VI sec. A. C. Edited by Arias, P.E. L'Erma Di Bretschneider. p. 79. ISBN 978-88-7062-500-4. Payne, Humfrey Gilbert Garth... figlio unico dello storico Edward John Payne e di sua moglie Emma Leonora Helena Pertz, nipote di Georg Heinrich Pertz, il curatore dei "Monumenta Germaniae Historica", e di James John Garth Wilkinson, il discepolo di Swedenborg.
  4. ^ a b c d Wayman, Patrick A. (February 1, 2002). "Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: astronomer extraordinaire". Astronomy & Geophysics. 43 (1): 1.27–1.29. Bibcode:2002A&G....43a..27W. doi:10.1046/j.1468-4004.2002.43127.x. ISSN 1366-8781.
  5. ^ Singh, S. Big Bang. Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-00-715252-3.
  6. ^ Tullberg, Rita McWilliams (September 24, 1998). Women at Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. p. 183. ISBN 9780521644648.
  7. ^ Payne, C. H. (1925). Stellar Atmospheres; A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars (PhD Thesis). Radcliffe College. Bibcode:1925PhDT.........1P.
  8. ^ a b Gregersen, Erik. "Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin". Encyclopædia Britannica.
  9. ^ a b Chown, Marcus (2009). We Need to Talk About Kelvin. faber and faber. pp. 99–100.
  10. ^ Russell, Henry (1929). "On the Composition of the Sun's Atmosphere". Astrophysical Journal, vol. 70, p.1. SAO NASA ADS. Retrieved October 12, 2018.
  11. ^ Padman, R. (2004). "Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900–1979)". Newnham College Biographies. Newnham College. Retrieved March 5, 2010.
  12. ^ "A friend to the stars: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin". epigenesys.eu. Retrieved September 22, 2014.
  13. ^ "Members of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences: 1780–2012; Payne-Gaposchkin, Cecilia Helena" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. p. 416. Retrieved July 29, 2014.
  14. ^ Hockey, T. (2007). Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. Springer. pp. 876–878. ISBN 978-0-387-30400-7.
  15. ^ "Astronomy Alumni". Harvard University, Department of Astronomy. Retrieved August 7, 2014.
  16. ^ "Dr. Cecilia H. Payne-Gaposchkin Dies". The Washington Post. Retrieved September 10, 2016.
  17. ^ "Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin". How Stuff Works. April 23, 2009. Retrieved September 10, 2016.
  18. ^ Payne-Gaposchkin, C. (1979). The Dyer's Hand: An Autobiography. Privately printed. OCLC 24007879.
  19. ^ a b Hirshberg, C. (April 18, 2002). "My Mother, the Scientist". Popular Science. Retrieved August 8, 2014.
  20. ^ Ottaviani, J.; Myrick, L. (2011). Feynman. First Second. ISBN 978-1-59643-259-8.
  21. ^ Feynman, R. P.; Sykes, C. (1995). No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman (Reprint ed.). W. W. Norton & Co. ISBN 978-0-393-31393-2.
  22. ^ Laidler, K. J. (2002). Energy and the Unexpected. Oxford University Press. p. 109. ISBN 978-0-19-852516-5. Since she actually got better marks in the prayerless group she became, and remained, a devout agnostic.
  23. ^ Gingerich, O. "Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: Astronomer and Astrophysicist". Notable American Unitarians. Harvard Square Library. Archived from the original on December 17, 2013. A September 1956 article in The Christian Register published by the American Unitarian Association, announced her appointment and described her as a member of the denomination's First Parish and Church in Lexington, Massachusetts.
  24. ^ Ogilvie, M.; Harvey, J., eds. (2000). The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-92038-4.
  25. ^ "Humfry Payne | British archaeologist". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved September 10, 2016.
  26. ^ "Rittenhouse Medal Awards". Rittenhouse Astronomical Society. 2010. Retrieved October 10, 2012.
  27. ^ "(2039) Payne-Gaposchkin = 1974 CA". IAU Minor Planet Center. Retrieved September 10, 2016.
  28. ^ Payne-Gaposchkin, C. (1977). "Henry Norris Russell Prize Lecture of the American Astronomical Society – Fifty years of novae". The Astronomical Journal. 82 (9): 665. Bibcode:1977AJ.....82..665P. doi:10.1086/112105.

Further reading


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