Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (NC 1919)

(1900 – 1979, Payne)

Cecilia Payne came up to Newnham to study Natural Sciences in 1919. She had had a brief fling with botany earlier, but decided to dedicate herself to astronomy after attending a lecture by Eddington.

Believing, correctly, that she would find it easier to pursue a career in astronomy in the United States than in the UK, she invited herself to Harvard as Harlow Shapley’s graduate student, and arrived there in September 1923. In just two years she produced what Otto Struve described in 1962 as “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy”.

In “Stellar Atmospheres” Payne applied the new theory of Quantum Mechanics to show that the spectra of the stars were determined entirely by their temperatures, and that the abundances of the different chemical elements were essentially constant throughout the Galaxy. This central conclusion still stands today, but at the time she was persuaded by Henry Norris Russell to pull back from it, because it was seemingly at odds with the abundances in the earth itself. Only when Russell himself arrived at the same conclusion via an entirely different argument was it eventually accepted, and although he acknowledged her earlier contribution in his short 1929 paper, the credit is generally given to him, rather than to her.

In 1934 she married Sergei Gaposchkin, and for much of the rest of her life worked with him on variable stars. They had three children. In 1938 she was eventually given a proper faculty job, and in 1956 was made a full professor, and became Head of the Department, a position she held for ten years.

“Mrs G” was remembered by Owen Gingerich as “a formidable, rather remote presence, of imposing stature and stormy personality.” A chain-smoker, “a pack of cigarettes and a single match could get her through an entire [lecture]”. She was a many-sided personality, “known for her wit, her literary knowledge and for her personal friendships with individual stars.” Perhaps because of her experience with her thesis research, she remained unassuming to the end. In her biography, The Dyer’s hand she said of research “Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. And if you achieve that reward, you will ask no other.”

Rachael Padman, 2004

To read further:

  • Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography, Edited by Katherine Haramundanis, CUP, New York, 1984