Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979) was an
English-American astronomer and astrophysicist whose work on stellar spectra
led to the discovery that stars are composed primarily of hydrogen and helium.
Although she began her studies at the
University of Cambridge, Payne soon realized that, as a woman, she had little
hope of a career in Britain. She moved to the United States and began graduate
work at Harvard where she encountered the so-called Harvard Computers—a group of
women hired by Harvard Observatory to classify and catalogue every known star
in the sky according to temperature and spectra.
Using data gathered by the Computers, Payne
applied the ionization theory developed by Indian physicist Maghnad Saha to the
puzzle of absorption lines—the black bands that appear at intervals along the
spectra when starlight is broken down into its constituent colours. She
concluded that these patterns indicate an abundance of hydrogen and helium in
the stars—an idea contrary to the widely accepted belief that stars had the
same elemental composition as the earth. At first derided for her conclusions, she
was persuaded to add a disclaimer to her thesis, saying that her results were
“almost certainly not real.” Soon, however, the rest of the scientific
community caught up and recognized her thesis as one of the most brilliant ever
written in the field of astronomy.
Cecilia Payne went on to become a full
professor and the first woman to head a department at Harvard. Academically active
in research and teaching throughout her life, she was was inspiration for other
women in traditionally male dominated fields of study. Recalling her own
experience, she encouraged her students to be rigorous in their research, but
then to have confidence in themselves. “I had
given in to Authority when I believed I was right,” she confessed. “That is
another example of How Not To Do Research. I note it here as a warning to the
young. If you are sure of your facts, you should defend your position.”
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