Cecilia Payne was a pioneering astronomer whose work helped to unravel the mysteries of the universe. Her groundbreaking research on the composition of stars revolutionised our understanding of astrophysics and paved the way for future generations of scientists.
Despite facing significant obstacles in her career, Payne persisted in her pursuit of knowledge and left a lasting legacy in the field of astronomy.
Early life and education
Cecilia Payne was born on 10 May 1900 in Wendover, England. Her father, Edward, was a London barrister and historian, yet tragically died when Cecilia was 4 years old, leaving her mother Emma to raise their young family.
When she was 12, the family moved to London and Cecilia studied at St Mary’s College, Paddington and thereafter St Paul’s Girls’ School. Despite her academic promise, she faced barriers to pursuing science, a subject women were not typically encouraged to study at the time.
Nevertheless, she persisted and was eventually awarded a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge University, where she initially read physics, chemistry and botany, though dropped the latter after her first year.
At Cambridge, Payne attended a lecture by prominent astronomer Arthur Eddington that would change her life and forcefully ignite her passion for astronomy. In her own words:
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.
She completed her studies yet did not receive a degree, as Cambridge did not grant degrees to women until 1948.
Realising her future in the UK most likely meant becoming a teacher, Payne looked overseas to continue her education. In 1923, she became the second student to join a brand new fellowship programme at Harvard University, spearheaded by astronomer Harlow Shapley and aimed at bringing women into the field. Shapley would become a staunch supporter of Payne for the rest of her career.
At Harvard, Payne began studying the spectra of stars, the patterns of light emitted by stars that can reveal information about their composition. In 1925, she was convinced by Shapley to write a doctoral thesis on her findings, becoming the first person to earn a PhD in astronomy from Radcliffe College of Harvard University. Her thesis, titled “Stellar Atmospheres”, was groundbreaking.
In it, she concluded that hydrogen was the overwhelming constituent of stars, making their elemental composition significantly different to Earth’s. This challenged the current scientific consensus and suggested that hydrogen was the most abundant element in the universe.
When her work was reviewed, astronomer Henry Norris Russell dissuaded her from reaching such conclusions, and she would soon decry her own work as “spurious”. It would not be until Russell himself found evidence to agree with Payne’s conclusions that he realised she was correct.
He published his findings (with very slight mention to Payne), and was generally credited with the conclusions she had reached. Nevertheless, famed astronomer Otto Struve later called her work “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy”.
After gaining her doctorate, Payne continued to study the stars in greater detail at Harvard, including stars of high luminosity to better understand the structure of the Milky Way and variable stars in the Magellanic Clouds. Her work on variable stars was undertaken alongside her husband Sergei Gaposchkin, a Russian-born astrophysicist she had met in Germany in 1933 and married the following year, adopting the name Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.
In the earlier years of her career, women were barred from becoming Professors at Harvard, so Payne was relegated to less prestigious, low-paid research jobs. It would take 30 years since she first published her thesis for Payne to be promoted to full professor at Harvard, becoming the first woman in history to do so.
Later, she was appointed Chair of the Department of Astronomy, also becoming the first woman to head a department at the university. She sent handwritten letters to all the female astronomy students inviting them to a party in the Observatory Library to celebrate.
Over her career Payne wrote several books which continued to unravel the mysteries of the universe. She went on to mentor future generations of astronomers, many of whom themselves made important contributions to the field.
In 1976, while in her 70s, she received the prestigious Henry Norris Russell Lectureship, awarded each year by the American Astronomical Society in recognition of a lifetime of excellence in astronomical research.
In her inspirational speech, she spoke to her lifelong joy of research and discovery:
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 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
Her immense contributions to our understanding of the universe continue to shape the field of astrophysics to this day and inspire and empower aspiring scientists, particularly women, to pursue their passions and thrive within the scientific community.