Cecilia Payne

The Woman Who Wrote The ‘Most Brilliant Ph.D. Thesis In Astronomy’

I read a fair amount of biographical works about Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin lately, and I made myself familiar with her scientific work too. Of course, I encountered plenty of her ideas during my scientific quest, but I did not know much about their creator.

First of all, she was a ‘she’. She was a woman in science, in times when women were far from anything related to science. Not that they weren’t capable. It was because they weren’t allowed to do it. It is hard for me, and I think that I can say that about most of us, to imagine such a world, a world where women were treated as they were. Even more shocking, it is hard to imagine that such a world existed just 100 years ago. This shows us, again, how much society can change in such a short time.

Cecilia Payne
Cecilia Payne
Credits: Smithsonian Institute

But was it Cecilia Payne’s fault that she was born then? Was it her fault for not having the chance to get into science and to do research? It wasn’t. And women today would have asked themselves the same thing today if it weren’t for brave women like her, and a few others back in the last century (such as Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, Emmy Noether, Vera Rubin, Lise Meitner, Rosalind Franklin, and others). We thank them for their contributions in science, and at the same time, for their courage to pursue science.

What is Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin credited with?

In her doctoral thesis, put forward in 1925, she proposed for the first time that stars may be made mainly of hydrogen and helium. Her work was initially rejected because it was against the believed idea that the Sun and the Earth were primarily made of approximately the same elements.

Her thesis was named “Stellar Atmospheres: A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars”. What she did was relating the spectral data from stars to their temperatures, by applying Saha’s ionization theory. She found that helium and hydrogen were greatly abundant, concluding her thesis with the affirmation that hydrogen was the overwhelming constituent of stars. The statement is, of course, similar to saying that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe. Which is fairly right.

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Her work saw a lot of angry responses, coming from very important astronomers of those days. One of the most angered scientists was Henry Norris Russell. Years later, he acknowledged his mistake.

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The story

 ‘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.’

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was in love with science. She fell in love with it from an early age. The quote mentioned comes from her years at Cambridge, where she won a scholarship to study. There she attended a lecture by Arthur Eddington, who was talking about his 1919 solar expedition. That, she said, sparked her interest in astronomy. However, even though she completed her years at Cambridge, she was never offered a degree, because degrees weren’t offered to women in those days at Cambridge.

She left England in 1923, heading to Harvard in order to complete her graduate studies. She became the first woman of Harvard to receive a Ph.D. in astronomy.

Cecilia Payne was restless. Her passion was breaking every limit. She once went for 72 hours without sleep, only working. Her character and determination were more than amazing.

Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin
Cecilia Payne at Harvard College University,
Credits: Smithsonian Institute

“There followed months, almost a year as I remember, of utter bewilderment. Often I was in a state of exhaustion and despair, working all day and late into the night”, she said about the last period of her doctoral work.

Otto Struve, a Russian-American astronomer, described her thesis a few years later, saying that it is “the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy.”

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Her work didn’t end in 1925. It was only the start of her scientific life. After deciding to stay at Harvard, she continued studying high-temperature stars, in order to understand the structure of the Milky Way. She later studied stars with brighter than the tenth magnitude and variable stars. Her work was later used to determine the paths in stars’ evolution.

In 1956, she became the first female professor at Harvard, and the first woman to hold a chair position there.

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The fight with gender

There is much to say about how she influenced the roads of women in science in general. But she wouldn’t have wanted us to talk about that, and that is because she, even if she saw it in every move she made, didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that she is seen differently. She was definitely aware of how her gender shapes her career, but never let that stop her. And more interesting, she never considered her a feminist. She just did her job. She just loved the stars.

Read more of Cecilia Payne

I do recommend reading her autobiography, “The Dyer’s Hand An Autobiography ”, and also I strongly encourage enthusiasts to read her more scientific books, namely “The Stars of High Luminosity”, or “Variable Stars”

32 thoughts on “The Woman Who Wrote The ‘Most Brilliant Ph.D. Thesis In Astronomy’”

  1. Thank you, never knew or heard about her and just used to take her work (stars components) for granted. Now everytime I see or think of stars I’ll recall Cecilia

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  3. Paul Theriault

    Beautifully done article. The pages of history are filled with stories of women who contributed so much and received so little recognition. Thank you for sharing this remarkable story…..:)

  4. Women have to carry triple burden in their path to become successful scientists.
    I am grateful to the author bringing her stellar work on stellar brightness to our notice.

  5. Wow, i never hered her name even. But i studied her theses legacies so many times. She was so brilliant .

  6. Those who are passionate about engineering and science will do it regardless of whether they are male or female. The woman in engineering the women in science , There are numerous such initiatives. But there is no program talking about men in nursing or men in medicine or men in Human Resource management. Nursing, medicine, and human resources are predominantly dominated by women. Because it is a scientifically proven fact based on the data by psychiatrist and by social scientist who conducted the experiment with millions of people across the cultures that men are interested in things (hence engineering) and woman are interested in people.

    “ Equality of opportunity “ for everyone (woma) say in engineering and science is respectable fact. And in most of the western Europe in countries and USA there is equality of opportunity for women. But forcing “equal outcome” that we must have women in Engineering we must have women in science Is something which is not simply wrong but deplorable. This comes at the cost of competence, passion and interest sometimes.

    This Indicates that force fitting anyone in something which they don’t like is not in a good idea. And those women who are passionate about something will do it regardless of any affirmative action programmes.

    1. You mention that women are in medicine. That is only recently true. Historically medicine was dominated by men. I am a retired nurse and am very happy that more men are now in nursing and lots of women are now doctors. Women can now be in the building trades and be fire fighters and do police work. Lots of women are now attorneys. Many opportunities for women that didn’t used to exist. When I was young, women could be secretaries, nurses or teachers.

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  11. Basavajyothi K

    Very good article that inspires every woman. Read about her contributions in astronomy but didn’t knew her. Great article 👏👏👏👏👏👏 being a physics Lecturer I feel proud and it’s more proud of being a Woman 😊

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