During the late watches of an insomniac predawn, I was watching a programme on cosmology, and was reminded of one of the unsung heroes of the field, the very person who made the observation that stars are composed largely of hydrogen and helium, and that these two element comprise 98% of the observable matter in the universe.

Prior to that, scientists had concentrated entirely on spectral analysis  of light from the Sun looking for the elements found in the stuff that the Earth is made of. This is a seemingly commonsense approach, but the concept was turned on its head by the work of Cecilia Payne, later Payne-Gaposchkin. Crazy name, crazy gal.

She gained a sholarship to study at Newnham College in Cambridge, having been inspired by a lecture by Arthur Eddington about studying general relativity by examining stars in close visual proximity to a solar eclipse. She was an exceptionally clever woman, and at college studied botany, physics, and chemistry. It was these latter two fields that led to her interest in astronomy and astrophysics.

She moved to the US, and at part of what is now Harvard she produced a PhD thesis with the less than catchy title of Stellar atmospheres, a contribution to the observational study of high temperature in the reversing layers of stars. It was once claimed that this was ‘undoubtedly the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy.’ I told she was a bright spark.

However, when she presented it, some idiot by the name of Henry Norris Russell dissuaded her from presenting the manifestly clear conclusion that the composition of the Sun was very different from that of the Earth, because that idea didn’t follow the then accepted wisdom. There was I being a sillybilly and thinking that the whole point of science was to challenge assumptions.

By the way, Russell reached the same conclusion by a different route about four years later and published, and it became widely accepted that he was the godfather of the theory. Typical, eh? It was only later that the sheer brilliance of her work was acknowledged.

Know why she had so much trouble getting her theories accepted? Because she was a girlie in a man’s world. Also, want to know why she moved to the US in the first place? Because even though she completed her studies at Newnham, she was not awarded a degree. Cambridge only awarded degrees to women from 1948 on. Lacking a degree meant that the only career opportunity for her in Britain was as a teacher.

It was a bit of a close call for astrophysics, all things considered.

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