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The Woman Who Discovered What the Universe is Made Of!

“Since her death in 1979, the woman who discovered what the universe is made of has not so much as received a memorial plaque. Her newspaper obituaries do not mention her greatest discovery. […] Every high school student knows that Isaac Newton discovered gravity, that Charles Darwin discovered evolution, and that Albert Einstein discovered the relativity of time. But when it comes to the composition of our universe, the textbooks simply say that the most abundant atom in the universe is hydrogen. And no one ever wonders how we know.”

Jeremy Knowles, discussing the complete lack of recognition Cecilia Payne gets, even today, for her revolutionary discovery. (via alliterate)

Cecilia Helena Payne was one of three children born to a London barrister, historian and accomplished musician, Edward John Payne and Emma Leonora Helena Perez Payne. Cecelia’s father died when she was only four years old, and her mother was left to raise the family on her own.

She attended St. Paul’s Girls’ School. Cecilia Payne’s mother refused, or was unable, to spend money on her college education. Cecelia was not to be deterred and applied for scholarships. In 1919 she won a scholarship to Newham College, at Cambridge University where she studied botany, physics and chemistry. It was at Cambridge that she attended a lecture by Arthur Eddington about his 1919 expedition to the island of Principe, in the Gulf of Guinea, off the west coast of Africa where he observed and photographed the stars near a solar eclipse as a test to Einstein’s theory of relativity. This ignited her interest in astronomy. She said after the lecture that “The result was a complete transformation of my world picture.” Cecelia successfully completed her studies at Cambridge but was not awarded a degree because she was a woman. Cambridge did not grant degrees to women until 1948.

Course work completed, no degree granted, she soon realized that if she stayed in the U.K. her only career option was teaching. This did not suit her as her appetite had been whetted for astronomy! She researched grants that would enable her to relocate to the U.S. In 1923 she met Harlow Shapley who directed the Harvard College Observatory and had just begun a graduate program in astronomy. Her studies were funded in part by the AAUW Rose Sidgwick Fellowship, a fund established for women graduates of British universities to study in the United States. She was the second student to receive this fellowship. The first was Adelaide Ames, the previous year.

She became the very first person to receive a doctorate in astronomy from Harvard. Her dissertation, Stellar Atmospheres: A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars, veered from common thinking at the time, so much so that she initially dismissed her results as likely to be proved wrong before long. Otto Strauve, the famous astronomer, inventor and instructor said that her thesis was, “the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy.”

Not only did Cecilia Payne discover what the universe is made of, she also discovered what the sun is made of (Henry Norris Russell, a fellow astronomer, is usually given credit for discovering that the sun’s composition is different from the Earth’s, but he came to his conclusions four years later than Payne—after telling her not to publish her work).

Cecilia Payne is the reason we know basically anything about variable stars (stars whose brightness as seen from earth fluctuates). Literally every other study on variable stars is based on her work.

Cecilia Payne was the first woman to be promoted to full professor from within Harvard, and is often credited with breaking the glass ceiling for women in the Harvard science department and in astronomy, as well as inspiring entire generations of women to take up science.


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