The Most Important Scientist You've Never Heard Of
Author: Cindy Hu
From: West Orange, NJ, USA
Pop quiz: how many known elements are there in the universe? Don’t know? “A lot” is a good enough answer.
But where did they come from? Of course, the universe made them. But how? Inside the cores of stars.
If you were to take any basic astronomy or astrophysics course, one of the first things you’d learn is that stars are primarily made of hydrogen and helium. Evidently, this discovery was one of paramount importance. So who does it belong to? It should be some really famous astronomer, like Kepler or Galileo, right?
It was Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. Ever heard of her? I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t.
Payne was born in England in 1900, the oldest of three children. Her father, Edward Payne, was found drowned in a canal when she was only 4 years old. Although Payne and her father had been very close, this meant that she was largely raised by her mother.
Payne’s mother was a painter, and it was from her that Payne learned to sketch, a skill that would aid her significantly while she pursued various branches of science.
It was clear from a young age that Payne would be a fiercely independent pioneer. When she was forbidden to write with her left hand (she was a lefty), she retaliated by becoming ambidextrous and learning to write upside-down, backward, and upside-down-backward. When she realized that she preferred science over religion, she tried convincing a bookbinder to put the Crito and the Apology into one book with “Holy Bible” written on the spine, since she was attending a strict Catholic school called St. Mary’s at that time. She was eventually expelled when it became clear that she and the school were beyond incompatible.
Fortunately, Payne was able to finish her schooling at St. Paul’s School for Girls, where she was finally encouraged and able to study all the science she wished. Payne ended up at Cambridge with a scholarship.
Payne didn’t attend Cambridge to become an astronomer. Rather, she was poised to enter the field of botany because that was what she’d studied earlier. (During this time, botany was generally viewed as a “girls’” subject, whereas math was for boys.)
This changed as soon as Payne attended a lecture by astronomer Arthur Eddington. Eddington had just come back from a trip to the remote island of Principe to observe a solar eclipse. Their observations were what confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity - the idea that light could bend.
From then on, Payne knew that she was going to switch to studying astronomy and physics. But she couldn’t, because the university grouped astronomy in the math department, so Payne was forced to stay in the physics department until she was able to join the newly emerging field of astrophysics.
Achievements and Legacy
Fast forward a few years. Now Payne has already graduated from Cambridge and is pursuing a Ph.D. at Harvard. She was preparing her doctoral thesis when she observed something unusual.
Until then, the scientific community generally believed that stars were composed of the same elements as Earth, in roughly the same proportions. But as Payne studied her starlight spectrums, she realized that they didn’t agree with that theory. When comparing her spectrums with those of chemical elements, she kept on seeing hydrogen in disproportionate amounts.
When she presented her theory to Arthur Eddington, the man who helped find evidence to support the bending of starlight, he told her that she was most definitely wrong. Payne went ahead and wrote her thesis on her discoveries anyway, adding a note that her observations were possibly inaccurate.
Besides discovering the composition of stars, Payne was also the first woman ever to receive a Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe College (now part of Harvard) as well as Harvard’s first female astronomy department head.
Pretty impressive right? Payne is certainly a scientist that we should be more aware of. Considering all the obstacles she had to surmount while on her science journey, Payne deserves more recognition than she gets.
Author: Cindy Hu
Cindy is a high school junior in NJ who loves math, physics, and biology, among many other subjects. Her hobbies include reading, playing the piano, and learning to crochet.
Fields, T. (2020, October 29). Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin - Carleton College. Retrieved April 24, 2021, from https://www.carleton.edu/goodsell/research/student-research/women/payne/
Gregersen, E. (2020, December 3). Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cecilia-Payne-Gaposchkin
Moore, D. (2020). What Stars Are Made Of: The Life of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.