AND ASTROPHYSICIST 1900-1980
by Patricia Watwood
Courtesy of the Harvard Portrait Collection
MOST BRILLIANT Ph.D. THESIS EVER WRITTEN IN ASTRONOMY"
by Owen Gingerich
Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
first arrived at Harvard College Observatory just over fifty
years ago. I was a very green undergraduate, a summer assistant
for Dr. Shapleythats how the entire staff referred
to himand I had an office across from his in Building
D. Mrs. G.thats what everyone called Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkinseemed
a formidable, rather remote presence, of imposing stature
and stormy personality as Jesse Greenstein characterized
I cant remember where she sat, but Sergeithats
how we all referred to her feisty husbandhad his office
on the stairs up to the 15" telescope, and the graduate
students assumed that their two offices were widely separated
to keep the stormy personalities from asserting themselves
Those initial impressions seem curiously at odds with my later
memories, for though Mrs. G. was always formidable in both
intellect and stature, she soon struck me as gentle and kind.
Our paths came together in my first semester in graduate school,
when I enrolled in her Introduction to Observational
Astrophysics. She taught the course in Byerly Hall in
the Radcliffe Yard, where all the astronomy classes open to
undergraduates then met. This is where I really learned what
chain smoking was. A pack of cigarettes and a
single match could get her through the entire period. Basically
hers was a course about stellar spectroscopy. Her teaching
fellows were kept very busy producing packs of photographic
spectra for usof Eta Carina, T Corona Borealis, Zeta
Puppis, and Nova Herculis, of sunspots and the Lick moving
spectra of the flash spectrum, from anywhere that suitable
examples could be found. She produced for us extensive lists
of lines, and she taught us how to use Charlotte Moores
multiplet tables. She carefully marched us through one fascinating
spectrum after another. The individual stars were her friends,
and so were the spectral lines. She probably knew most of
them by memory.
Mrs. G told me how she had been converted to astronomy. She
had heard a lecture by Arthur Eddington on relativity, and
had been so impressed that she went back to her room and copied
it all out. I know I got it right, she added slyly,
because he later published his lecture.
Edward, Sergei Gaposchkin, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin
in her office in 1946. Courtesy of Katherine Haramundanis.
the observational astrophysics class she borrowed a spectacular
plate of a Zeeman spectrum from MIT, and it fell to me to
analyze it for my class project. Years later, after she had
died, I wanted to publish a sample of a Zeeman spectrum, but
I had forgotten not only what atom it was, but the wavelength
range as well. I sought help from Charlotte Moore Sitterly
and others, but in vain. Finally one of Alex Dalgarnos
colleagues in New York said, I cant identify the
atom, but the j values of the transitions are 41ž2-51ž2 and
so on down. That was all I needed to identify it as
vanadium, multiplet 22 in the multiplet tables, and I felt
very smug about Mrs. G.s legacythere cant
have been very many other students in the country trained
to handle such a problem. She always loved puzzles like that.
I was destined to be her thesis student, but some of the same
circumstances that had eventually pulled her away from her
first love, spectroscopy, also posed serious obstacles for
me, and eventually I turned to a computational dissertation.
Nevertheless, I kept in close touch with Mrs. G., learning
her views on Italian art or paleolithic axes or mosaic woodworking
or the earliest printed edition of Reynard the Fox, all topics
that deeply interested her. Occasionally she reflected historically,
on her admiration for Eddington, or how Dr. Shapley was the
best conversationalist she had ever met. Everyone adored
him, she wrote in her autobiography. Adelaide
[Ames] and I called him the Dear Director, and
soon he was affectionately known as the D.D..
In spite of a vigorous scientific companionship, Dr. Shapley
kept his distance. He never forgot, or let me forget, that
he was the Director of the Observatory. I knew him for more
than 50 years, and never once did he call me by my first name.
Personally I dont know of anyone who called Dr. Shapley
by his first name. From time to time he would set up tables
in the Phillips Library in the form of a square, and the staff
would gather round as he introduced visitors or expanded on
the latest astronomical gossip. He called these sessions Hollow
Squares, but the graduate students referred to them
as Harlow Squares. There is a legend that when
Cecilia Payne and Sergei Gaposchkin eloped in 1934, Dr. Shapley
announced it at a Hollow Square and that Miss Cannon fainted
dead away. In any event, I knew Mrs. G. for just over 30 years,
more than half the time she spent at Harvard, but I dont
recall if I ever called her by her first name. Nevertheless,
in what follows I shall call her Cecilia simply to remind
you that back in the 1920s she was a young graduate student
in her 20s.
Cecilia Payne was born on May 10, 1900, in Wendover, England
to a family with genealogical and intellectual connections
to the intelligentsia of England. A box of letters she had
inherited from her family included the autographs of Charles
Darwin and the geologist Charles Lyell. Her educational trajectory
took her to Newnham College in Cambridge, where she was allowed
the unusual combination of botany, physics, and chemistry.
Though she was soon disillusioned by botany, her love of taxonomy
found a natural niche in her ultimate pursuit of astronomy,
where she eventually became a relentless classifier of variable
But her interests turned more and more strongly to physics
and then, inspired by Eddingtons lecture on relativity,
to astronomy. Among the courses she audited was one by the
distinguished physicist Ernest Rutherford, and in her autobiography,
The Dyers Hand, she records a wonderful anecdote:
The stress was on observation. One thoroughgoing
experiment, Rutherford thundered in one of his lectures,
is worth all the theories in the world. . .
Years later Eddington uttered the dictum that he would not
believe an observation unless it was supported by a good
theory. I was an astronomer by that time and knew him well.
I told him I was shocked by his pronouncement. He smiled
gently. I thought it would be good for Rutherford,
May of 1922 the newly appointed director of Harvard College
Observatory visited England and spoke at the Royal Astronomical
Society. Cecilia, in the audience, was captivated, and after
the lecture expressed to him her desire to study astronomy
at Harvard Observatory. Nine months later she wrote:
Dear Professor Shapley,
I had the pleasure of seeing you at the meeting of the Royal
Astronomical Society in May last, when I believe I said
to you that I hoped to come and work at Harvard. I had decided
some time previously that if it were possible I should wish
to do research work under you. When, some months later,
I consulted Professor Eddington, under whom I had been doing
some work, as to what he would advise me to do if I were
able to continue my studies at another University, he advised
me most strongly to come to Harvard if I could. This advice
coincided completely with my own wishes and ambitions.
I am extremely anxious to come if it is possible and am
prepared to undertake anything that would enable me to work
at Harvard. . . .4
observations with a blink microscope
(Photo Courtesy of the Harvard University Archives)
encouraged her dream, but as Mrs. G. once confided to me years
later, she thought he was quite startled when she actually
showed up in the American Cambridge. But Shapley was not really
taken by surprise, for there was a substantial correspondence
preparing the way for her arrival. Included were fellowship
recommendations from her mentors in England, and the common
theme was her great enthusiasm. Eddington wrote, I think
her work shows much promise. . . . She . . . in addition possesses
the valuable qualities of enthusiasm and energy in her work.5
William Smart remarked, It gives me great pleasure to
testify to the abilities and enthusiasm of Miss Payne.
Leslie Comrie observed, Of her purely academic qualifications
others are more competent to judge than I, but of her personal
qualities of energy, perseverance and enthusiasm I can speak
highly. . . . Should she be elected I feel certain that she
will take her place worthily in the line of women astronomers
that Harvard has nourished. G. F. C. Searle, University
Lecturer in Experimental Physics, wrote, She is a thoroughly
earnest student and very keen on her work. And particularly
touching is the recommendation from Frances Gray, head mistress
of St. Pauls Girls School: It is not my
practice to admit girls who have reached the age at which
Cecilia Payne was admitted [age 17], but I was requested to
make an exception in her case by the headmistress of the School
she had previously attended, who assured me that she was a
girl of very unusual promise.
I soon saw for myself that this promise was likely to be
fulfilled, and that Cecilia Payne had originality and ability
far in advance of the originality and ability of the ordinary
clever school-girl. I was very much struck, also, by her
power of presenting a difficult subject in a lucid and attractive
manner. I heard her give to the Science Club of the School
a remarkably clear and interesting lecture on Aviation.
It would not have been unworthy of an experienced teacher
responding to Shapleys encouragement, Cecilia wrote,
It is very good of you to say that I may work at Harvard
under you, and I think it is a most inspiring prospect, which
I shall do everything in my power to attain. . . .
I am extremely glad that you suggest the photographic
study of variable stars as a possible line of work for me.
I had hoped that you might suggest this subject, which has
interested me perhaps more than any other branch, although
I have done no original work upon it yet.6
a letter that crossed hers Shapley again emphasized this kind
of research: As it is most likely that your work will
lie along photometric lines, I should like to suggest that
you familiarize yourself, if you have time before leaving
England, with some of Miss Leavitts and Professor Seares
work on photometric standards. .7
By September of 1923 Cecilia had arrived on these shores.
Soon she was busily working, not on photometry, but on spectra
under Annie Cannons tutelage. Before twelve months had
passed she had won a class day prize (which took her by surprise)
and she had gone to the British Association for the Advancement
of Science meeting in Toronto, where Henry Norris Russell
and Harvards professor Frederick Saunders made sure
that she met J.S. Plaskett, Ralph H. Fowler, Alfred Fowler,
and Georges Lemaître (whom she described as almost
too good to be truenot shy, a sense of humour, enthusiasm,
and . . . surprising mental quality)8.
Her trip to Toronto included a highly memorable excursion
to Niagara Falls, described to her fellow astronomy student
When we arrived I decided that solitude and silence were
the only way to see the Falls, so I slipped away . . . and
went off to stand by myself at the head of the Horseshoe
Falls. . . . I dont know how long I was there, but
I seemed to have been there always, when I turned around
and found the only other person in the world whom I should
have liked to be there, standing beside me. He also I suppose
was after silence and solitude. I must say that was a good
moment. . . .
I went down to the foot of the Canadian Falls and was thrilled
by the water coming down with such a roar; and I walked
around everywhere and drank it all in; and didnt have
to speak a word to a soul the whole time, (except for a
probably inapposite but spontaneous comment to Eddington).9
Lexington, MA. Katherine, Martin Schwardschild, Cecilia,Otis
Scammon, Peter, Sergei, and Edward. Courtesy of Katherine
Eddington went on after the Toronto meeting to lecture in
Berkeley, and in November Cecilia got wind of the fact that
he would speak at a neighborhood meeting at Yale as he headed
back to Englandby accidentnot from Shapley,
who obviously isnt anxious to keep me up on this particular
news. . . . perhaps Shapley wanted to spare me the pain of
knowing it was going on at a meeting which my sex debars me
from attending! 10
in June of 1924, she had already taken a preliminary general
examination for the Ph.D., set by Dr. Shapley and Prof. Saunders.
The astronomical part of the exam survives in the Harvard
Archives, together with a substantial part of her answers.11
Among other things she was asked to write briefly on the Schaffierkassette,
and briefly it was, for concerning the jiggle camera, she
only wrote Schwarzschild method for photographic
photometry. Difficulty of application to faint stars
and on two-dimensional time she merely specified, Eddington
(Math Theory of Relativity) An intellectual speculation of
a daring kindno apparent practical bearing of any sort
but this was apparently enough to convince Shapley that she
knew what the terms meant. She was equally dismissive of general
relativity when asked about future astronomical research and
the general theory of relativity. . . . the contacts
between Relativity Theory and future astronomy do not appear
to be very important, she wrote. It does
not . . . seem likely that much work can profitably be attempted
with Relativity theory in mind. The theory may prove useful
in elucidating observation but at the present stage can hardly
The academic year 1924-25 was spent researching and writing
her doctoral thesis. In her autobiography Mrs. G. reported
that, concerning her degree, One serious obstacle existed:
there was no advanced degree in astronomy, and I should have
to be accepted as a candidate by the Department of Physics.
The redoubtable Chairman of that department was Theodore Lyman,
and Shapley reported to me that he refused to accept a woman
Be that as it may, the archival record seems far more routine.
In September Lyman wrote,
My Dear Shapley,
Strictly speaking I have no right to sign Miss Paynes
application for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, but
as I believe that some such action is generally taken in
similar cases by the chairman of other Departments, I will
gladly affix my signature and forward the paper to the Secretary
any event, organizing the degree for Cecilia de facto
created the Astronomy Department.
Thus it was that at 2 p.m. Monday May 11 Cecilia had her final
oral examination with Dr. Shapley and Prof. Saunders, who
as an official member of the Radcliffe faculty had been delegated
by Professor Lyman.14
And by June, when she left for a vacation in England, she
could write to Shapley from the steamship that I left
a complete MS of my thesis on the desk with the proof.
of Sergei, with SG, Nov. 1936.Courtesy of Katherine Haramundanis.
months later bound copies of her monograph were available.
Shapley reported to her in England that, I have not
looked through the book very critically, but my superficial
examinations are sufficiently satisfying. I am particularly
pleased with the binding. And of course the contents could
be worse. I doubt if as good pieces of work have often before
been put through in as short a time. 16
doubt Cecilia was used to Shapleys impish sarcasm by
this time, and she responded from London, I am glad
you like the binding. I think it is admirable, and if inspection
of the volume went only that far, I think it would create
a good impression, 17
but a week after his earlier letter Shapley felt modestly
apologetic when he wrote, To counteract some of the
sarcastic disparagement by the Director, I am sending you
a copy of the first page of a letter just received from Russell.
He also writes in detail concerning some points. . .
None of them amount to a great deala perfectly astonishing
revelation to me. 18
Shapleys secretary, Arville Walker, typed out a copy
of the first page of Russells handwritten letter. He
wrote as follows:
My dear Shapley [they
always addressed each other by their last names!]
Please accept my hearty thanks for your letter, and for
the presentation copy of Miss Paynes admirable book.
It is the best doctoral thesis I ever readwith the
exception, perhaps, of one on the orbits of eclipsing binaries!
obvious reference to Shapleys own thesis written under
Russell a decade earlier]and ought to be
strongly recommended, not only to observatory libraries,
but to all students of the subject.
As I read it overI have eaten it up since I got it
yesterdayI am especially impressed with the wide grasp
of the subject, the clarity of the style, and the value
of Miss Paynes own results. Many of these I knew before;
of the others, the conclusion on p. 137 strikes me as especially
pretty. To show that so much of the apparent discrepancy
in the position of the maximum intensity is traceable to
the relative abundance of atoms in higher and lower excitation
states, and to have the computed pressures come out as they
do after this correction, is very nice indeed.19
was, in fact, the central brilliant result of Cecilias
thesis, so let me discontinue this review from the Harvard
Archives and turn to the astrophysical background for the
monograph itself and to an explanation of this major result.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the temperatures of stars
was seen as a central unsolved astrophysical problem. In 1923
and 24, when Cecilia began to work on this problem,
it was indeed 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. What she did was to use
the new quantum mechanical understanding of atomic structure
to show how and why the spectral lines of the various elements
varied with respect to spectral type, and she established
that despite the varied appearance of these spectra, their
differences resulted essentially from the physical conditions
and not from abundance variations. This chemical homogeneity
of the starry universe is the essential point of her thesis,
and the conclusion that Russell immediately zeroed in on.
It is this result that Otto Struve highlighted when he called
her book, Stellar Atmospheres, undoubtedly the
most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy.
was a stunning insight into the uniformity of nature in the
chemical construction of the universe.
But there is more. In a short chapter entitled The Relative
Abundance of the Elements there is a ticking time bomb.
This is the extremely high abundance of hydrogen and helium
that had come out under certain assumptions in the analysis.
Although we know today that this high abundance is real, at
the time it produced an apparent anomaly with respect to the
assumed homogeneity of the solar system. After all, when the
earth is taken as a whole, it must be predominately iron in
order to account for its high mean density, and this is supported
by the fact that meteorites are largely iron and by the appearance
of the solar spectrum itself, which shows more lines of iron
than any other element. The very important principle of uniformity
of nature seemed at stake. As Cecilia herself argued in her
thesis, If . . . the earth originated from the surface
layers of the sun, the percentage composition of the whole
earth should resemble the composition of the solar (and therefore
of a typical stellar) atmosphere. . . . Considering the possibility
of atomic segregation both in the earth and in the star, it
appears likely that the earths crust is representative
of the stellar atmosphere.21
So in her final table of abundances, she omitted hydrogen
While Cecilia was deep in her thesis research, she took off
time in the first days of 1925 to go to the AAS/AAAS meeting
in Washington, the famous meeting where Hubbles results
on the distance to M31 were announced. The D.D. had
sent me off with the admonition to breeze up to
people, she wrote to her friend Margaret Harwood after
her return, and I thought Brown, of whom I am terrified,
would be a good one to start on. 22
Brown encouraged me to join the party . . . and even offered
me a cigarette, which I scandalized him by accepting. .
After two days I decided to begin breezing up
as nothing seemed likely to come my way otherwise. From
thenceforward I did not listen to any papers. . . . I spent
my time selecting victims, oscillating from the Physical
to Chemical section in quest of them, leaving astronomy
to the other astronomers. In this way I saw J. Q. Stewart,
to great effect; also Prof. Compton of Princeton from whom
I gleaned much that was of value. The strain of introducing
myself to the latter gentleman nearly finished mebut
it had to be done. I also saw Smythe of Princetonan
old dancing partner of Cambridge (Eng.) days, who used to
be too proud to talk shop, but who now ministered to my
pride by recognizing me, and coming up on purpose to discuss
one of my papers with me. . . .
On the last evening I was worn out, and also a count of
my money revealed the fact that I had not enough to buy
me a dinner. You can imagine my gratitude when the D.D.
asked me to dine with him and Russell, not only for the
honour done me, but for the actual food (I was dreadfully
hungry). Adelaide and I always noticed that the D.D. does
tactful things like that, apparently on pure inspiration.
He had to leave early, and I believe that Russell and I
were the only remaining members of the party. After Russell
had been broadcast, he came and joined me, and we talked
the whole eveningabout (can you guess?) poetry and
ancient Rome. I should not have thought he was the same
man, and I feel quite differently about himcertainly
I shall not be afraid personally of him any more. (His power
in the astronomical world is another matter, and I shall
fear that to my dying day, as the fate of such as I could
be sealed by him with a word.)
years ago I asked Mrs. G why she had pulled back from what
is in retrospect the correct solution to the hydrogen abundances.
Probably Henry Norris Russell talked me out of it,
was her reply. It was in the Princeton Archives that I found
what I call the smoking gun letter, written about
ten days after she had met him in Washington:
January 14, 1925
My dear Miss Payne:
Here, at last, are your notes on relative abundance which
you were so good to send me some time ago....
You have some very striking results which appear to me,
in general, to be remarkably consistent. Several of the
apparent discrepancies can be easily cleared up. [Here Russell
discusses Mg, Mg+, and K in some detail.]
There remains one very much more serious discrepancy, namely,
that for hydrogen, helium and oxygen. Here I am convinced
that there is something seriously wrong with the present
theory. It is clearly impossible that hydrogen should be
a million times more abundant than the metals, and I have
no doubt that the number of hydrogen atoms in the two quantum
state is enormously greater than is indicated by the theory
of Fowler and Milne. Compton and I sent a little note to
Nature about metastable states, which may help
to explain the difficulty. . . .
his recent biography of Henry Norris Russell, David DeVorkin
writes, She certainly did not convince Russell, and
if Russell knew anything, he knew that her argument would
not convince others. . . . He was right. Payne probably knew
Meanwhile, however, Russell, perhaps after visiting his recent
doctoral student, Donald Menzel, at Lick Observatory in January
of 1929 and seeing his results on the solar flash spectrum,
reconsidered his stance on the hydrogen abundance, and produced
that year a monumental ApJ paper entitled, On the Composition
of the Suns Atmosphere. 25DeVorkin
points out that Russells approach was entirely different
from Paynes. Whereas she has concerned herself primarily
with astrophysical evidence, Russell now argued from the physical
nature of the hydrogen atom, and only then marshaled support
from a variety of astrophysical data. Consequently, as DeVorkin
says, Only at the end of his seventy-one-page ApJ paper
did Russell give full credit to Paynes 1925 conclusions,
saying nothing of his original rejection of them. Now he showed
how his results agreed with hers, which was very gratifying
because she had used different methods on her giant stars.
A giant star evidently had an outer atmosphere of nearly pure
hydrogen, with hardly more than a smell of metallic
vapors in it. 26
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
this result. It was thus Russell who Atkinson credited for
the large hydrogen abundance in his pioneering 1931 proposal
that nuclear fusion could account for the energy output of
the sun, though he specifically cited Cecilias conclusion
that the proportions of the different elements seem to be
roughly constant throughout the galaxy.
Cecilia Paynes thesis had clearly played a seminal role
in the development of astrophysics. As the young Otto Struve,
then just an instructor at Yerkes Observatory, wrote in a
lengthy review of her monograph for the ApJ in 1926, Miss
Paynes book is full of useful suggestions for the practical
worker. Nearly every page contains references to problems
which are open to investigation by the spectroscopist.
Moses, Cecilia had made a truly memorable contribution. And
like Moses, she had glimpsed the promised land, but hadnt
quite got there. With what we know today, we could wish that
it were otherwise, but I believe my account tallies with the
historical actualities, where it is the person who persuades
his colleagues of a new result who gets the credit. But its
interesting to notice that, when in 1934 Princetons
president inquired with Henry Norris Russell about a possible
staff member to groom as his replacement, Russell wrote that
the best candidate in America alas, is a woman!,not
at present on our staff, an obvious reference to Cecilia
I once owned two copies of Cecilias monograph. The first
I took to her to autograph. She simply inscribed her name,
with none of the flourish that celebrities or my more flamboyant
colleagues are wont to use. As a historian, I decided to keep
the other copy, once owned by Otto Struve, the some-time director
of Yerkes Observatory who had called her monograph the
most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy.
I gave the one Mrs. G. had inscribed so meekly to one of my
own thesis students. But the modesty of her inscription always
reminded me of a philosophical stance that she held and which
I still believe is dead wrong. It doesnt really
matter how you give the credit for a scientific discovery,
she said, for if one person doesnt discover it,
someone else will. Ive always wondered to what
extent her own experience with her thesis reinforced that
In contrast, I strongly hold that individuals in history can
make a difference, whether it is in the political, artistic,
or scientific arena. I am sure that for many of us, Mrs. G.s
scientific work as well as her mentorship did make a unique
Jesse L. Greenstein, An introduction to The
Dyers Hand, in Katharine Haramundanis
(ed.), Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and
Other Recollections (Cambridge, 1984), p. 8. 2. Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin, The Dyers Hand:
An Autobiography (1979), in Katharine Haramundanis (ed),
op. cit., pp. 155-56. 3. Ibid., p. 117.
4. Harvard University Archives, Observatory Directors
papers (Shapley), UA V 630.22 Box 7, Cecilia H. Payne to
Harlow Shapley, 26 February 1923. Unless otherwise specified,
the letters are from this box.
5. Ibid. (1923 letters of recommendation).
6. Payne to Shapley, 5 April 1923.
7. Shapley to Payne, 16 April 1923.
8. Payne to Shapley, 10 August 1924.
9. Payne to Margaret Harwood, Toronto, 16 August 1924. Harwood
Archive, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard
University. I am indebted to David DeVorkin for pointing
out these letters.
10. Payne to Harwood, 22 November 1924. Harwood Archive,
Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
11. A copy of two of the three parts of the Ph.D. preliminary
exam is found among Shapleys personal papers in HUG
773.10.19c. Her answers to Shapleys part of the exam
are found among the directors papers in UAV 630.22
(1920-29) Box 7 under Gaposchkin. I am
indebted to Robert Hall for this information.
12. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, op. cit., (note 2), p. 157.
13. Theodore Lyman to Shapley, 20 September 1924 (Box 12).
14. Shapley to Lyman, 6 May 1925 (Box 12).
15. Payne to Shapley, 10 June 1925.
16. Shapley to Dr. Cecilia Payne, 6 August 1925.
17. Payne to Shapley, 20 August 1925.
18. Shapley to Payne, 15 August 1925.
19. Henry Norris Russell to Shapley, 11 August 1925.
20. Otto Struve and Velta Zebergs, Astronomy of the 20th
Century (New York, 1962), p. 220.
21. Cecilia H. Payne, Stellar Atmospheres (Harvard Observatory
Monograph No. 1) (Cambridge, 1925), p. 185.
22. Payne to Margaret Harwood, 9 January 1925, Schlesinger
Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
23. Russell to Payne, 14 January 1925, Henry Norris Russell
Papers, Series I: Outgoing Correspondence, Box 9, Folder
37; published with permission of the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript
Library, Princeton University.
24. David DeVorkin, Henry Norris Russell, Dean of American
Astronomers (Princeton, 2000), p. 366.
25. Henry Norris Russell, ApJ 70 (1929), 11-82.
26. DeVorkin, op. cit. (note 29), p. 216.
27. Robert dEscourt Atkinson, ApJ 73 (1931), 292.
28. Otto Struve, ApJ 64 (1926), 204-208.
29. DeVorkin, op. cit. (note 29), p. 341.
standing behind Everett House. Courtesy of Katherine
When Cecilia Payne was five years old, she saw a meteor and
immediately decided to become an astronomer: "I was seized
with panic at the thought that everything might be found out
before I was old enough to begin," wrote Payne-Gaposhkin at
the end of her life. Payne-Gaposchkin's career reflects her
early and prodigious start; she published two major, enduring
books on astronomy before the age of 30.
for science and math was not in keeping with her English upper-class
girl's education, which strongly favored literary interests.
In her autobiography The Dyer's Hand, she recalled
that "When I won a coveted prize ... I was asked what book
I would choose to receive. It was considered proper to select
Milton, or Shakespeare. . . .I said I wanted a textbook on
fungi. I was deaf to all expostulation: that was what I wanted,
and in the end I got it, elegantly bound in leather as befitted
a literary giant.
After attending the academically
prestigious St. Paul's Girls School in London, Payne won a
scholarship to study Natural Sciences at Newnham College,
Cambridge University in 1919. At that time in England, a woman's
postgraduate career opportunities were limited to teaching.
A brilliant student more interested in physics than natural
sciences, she was advised by Professor Arthur Stanley Eddington
to pursue graduate studies at Harvard College in the more
liberal United States. After completing her studies at Cambridge,
Payne became a doctoral student at Harvard in 1924. The rich
store of astronomical records at the Harvard Observatory,
and the presence of a community of astronomers, created a
nirvana for Payne from which she would never leave. In 1925,
a brisk two years after her arrival in the United States,
she became the first student, male or female, to earn a Ph.D.
from the Harvard College Observatory. Her doctoral thesis,
"Stellar Atmospheres," articulated her surprising
discovery of the chemical homogeneity of the starry universe.
Prior to her work in the area, it had been believed that the
chemical composition of stars was similar to that of the Earth.
Seventy-five years after her scientific discoveries were first
published, they are still valid.
While the United States was more
open to women astronomers than England, Payne-Gaposchkin was
given a marginal position at the Harvard Observatory following
the extraordinary success of her doctoral studies. An article
about her in American National Biography notes that she "informally
advised students and occasionally taught courses under the name
of the observatory director, Harlow Shapley." In 1930, she published
her second book, Stars of High Luminosity , in which
she attempted to provide an ordered account of observations
of star behaviors. At one point, she considered leaving Harvard
because of her low status and meager salary. Shapley, however,
made efforts to improve her position, but it would not be until
1938 that she was made an official faculty member of Harvard
University. Out of gratitude for the opportunities the United
States had given her and out of the belief that a responsible
adult in a community must be a voter, she became an American
citizen in 1931.
Helena Payne, 1904. Courtesy of Katherine Haramundanis.
In 1933 on a trip to Germany,
she met the Russian astronomer Sergei Gaposchkin, whose political
beliefs made him an exile of his native land and whose Russian
nationality made him unwelcome in Hitler's Germany. Payne
convinced Shapley to give the Russian astronomer a position
at Harvard, thereby securing his physical safety as well as
his career. Two years later, they were married. The Gaposchkins
had three children, all of whom worked as astronomers for
a period of time.
Payne-Gaposchkin was a
many-sided personality known for her wit, her literary knowledge,
and for her personal friendships with individual stars. She
became the first woman in the history of Harvard University
to receive a corporation appointment with tenure, and the
first woman department chair in 1956.
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. The article
also gave an account of her close collaboration with her husband
and their respective interests, hers in variable stars and
his in eclipsing stars:"When we come to an eclipsing star,
I would say to my husband, 'That is yours.' And when we would
come to a pulsating star, I would say, 'That is mine.'"
remained chair of the Astronomy department and a full professor
at Harvard for ten years. During that time, she published The
Galactic Novae (1957) in which she noted patterns in observations
of stars that had been made over a period of twenty-five years
and pointed out areas worthy of further attention. Her book,
An Introduction to Astronomy (1954) was based on the
undergraduate astronomy course she taught at Harvard College.
She also delivered a memorable series of lectures to non-astronomers
entitled" Stars in the Making" (1953). Of her
contributions to astronomy, her former student and fellow astronomer
Jesse Greenstein wrote, "It led forward to important problems
in the study of nuclear astrophysics, as well as in the use
of variable stars of high luminosity, probing the structure
and rotation of our Milky Way and the distances to other galaxies.
Most important, it showed the bravery and adventure of a mind
exploring the unknown with the available scientific apparatus
and a complete belief in the power of human reason and logic."
After 1967, she was named Professor
Emeritus of Harvard University. Her early education in Classical
and English literature, greatly enriched her lifelong sense
of inquiry and adventure.
Although she broke down formidable
boundaries for women in her field, her autobiography, The
Dyer's Hand, describes a career marked with slow promotions
and low salaries.What sustained her were her intellectual
interests and the rewards of her work. She wrote, "I simply
went on plodding, rewarded by the beauty of the scenery towards
an unexpected goal." To fellow scientists, she encouraged
the same single-minded sense of purpose, noting that, "Your
reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. And
if you achieve that reward you will ask no other."
most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy"
Starry Universe: The Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin Centenary
A new portrait of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin has recently been
featured in Harvard
Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography Edited by Katherine
Haramundanis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984).
Starry Universe: The Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin Centenary
edited by A. G. Davis, Philip & Rebecca A. Koopmann (Schenectady,
NY: L. Davis Press, 2001). Note the chapter by Owen Gingerich,
"The Most Brilliant Ph. D. Thesis Ever Written in Astronomy".