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Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin - The woman who knew the stars

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin investigated stellar composition for her PhD research.Credit: Science History Images/Alamy

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, (May 10, 1900 – December 7, 1979) was a British-born American astronomer and astrophysicist was the woman who knew the stars like nobody else, She was the person who propsed that the stars were made up of the same "material" as we are made of, majorly Hydroge and Helium. In 1925, in her 215-page Harvard doctoral thesis that made her the first person to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy at Radcliffe-Harvard, Her thesis really did change the understanding of humankind, and changed the path of astrophysics forever.

No idea should be suppressed. … And it applies to ideas that look like nonsense. We must not forget that some of the best ideas seemed like nonsense at first. The truth will prevail in the end. Nonsense will fall of its own weight, by a sort of intellectual law of gravitation. If we bat it about, we shall only keep an error in the air a little longer. And a new truth will go into orbit.
— Cecilia Payne In Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections (1996), 233.

Payne addressesthe question itself; When we ask what objects in the world around us are "made of," we respond by pointing to their material, like wood and cement , and then further examining each material into various kinds of atoms and elements. As it is difficult to physically fetch atoms directly from a star the way one might fetch a fistful of clay from the earth, scientists can only study another element of the stellar "stuff", light.

Analyzing the light makes it easier to distinguish what stars are made of since matter derives light from particular wavelengths in the gaseous state, with each molecule occupying a distinct range of wavelengths and hence appearing as the light passes through a prism at a certain location along the color spectrum.

This technique, Payne says, revealed that stars are made of the same elements found all around us, although conditions on those stars are drastically different from those on Earth, with conditions on those stars being significantly different from those on Earth, In both temprature and densities among them.

This was a groundbreaking theory that would lead to radically new hypotheses concerning the universe's evolution. For the rest of her life, Payne herself will commit herself to illuminating these mysteries, becoming the first woman to lead a department at Harvard.

To add to the brilliance of her life here is a poem by Mr.Nigel Cresswell, Titled 'Cecilia Payne'

Cecilia Payne

by Mr.Nigel Cresswell

Cecilia Payne had a wonderful brain. You probably don't know who she was.

It is a shame. A shame on all men.

When Cecilia was a child the universe invaded her mind. Astronomy became her hearts flame.

Cecilia's mother said science was unladylike and would not pay her way.

So Cecilia won her scholarship to Cambridge, the first woman to attend.

She finished her studies with colours that fly. Cambridge would not award a degree.

Cecilia Payne was a woman you see.

Cecilia sailed to America gave freedom to her flame.

Became Dr. Cecilia Payne.

Her thesis was in the words of Otto Strauve;

"The most brilliant PHD thesis ever written in astronomy"

Cecilia discovered from what the universe is made.

She learnt how the engine of the sun ran and sang.

We all know that stars can twinkle (they are called variable stars) Cecilia said how and why.

She was the first female full professor at Harvard. That glass ceiling was broken by her.

Einstein, Hawking, Newton and...... nobody Knows her name.

Shame. Shame. Shame.

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