Did this Woman Really Discover What ‘the Universe is Made of’?

We look deeply at viral claims about Cecilia Payne, one of the most influential and overlooked female astronomers in the history of science.

  • Published 23 August 2019
  • Updated 27 August 2019

A Facebook post, first published in September 2018 and reshared virally in July 2019, discussed the career of Harvard astronomer Cecilia Payne and her contribution to our modern understanding of the universe:

Cecilia Payne (who went by Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin most of her life) was instrumental in discovering the ubiquity of hydrogen in our universe, and the data she derived for her 1925 dissertation are likely the most significant contributions to our modern understanding of the true composition of stars. Despite this, she was, at the time, encouraged to downplay her paradigm-challenging results at the behest of men who would later verify them as accurate. That said, the viral post takes a few liberties. This article provides historical and scientific context about Payne-Gaposchkin, and then addresses each specific statement in the post.

Scientific Context

In the early 1920s, the prevailing view about the composition of stars was that they were essentially composed of the same elements existing on Earth, just many times hotter. One of the more prominent supporters of this view at the time was Princeton astronomy Professor Henry Norris Russell. Russell would later write a paper rejecting his earlier views on the topic, supporting the now-accepted conclusion that stars were primarily made of hydrogen. 

Payne-Gaposchkin, while working at the influential Harvard College Observatory, wrote a 1925 doctoral dissertation on the composition of stellar atmospheres. During the course of this work, some of her data challenged the prevailing view about the composition of stars, suggesting they contained orders of magnitude more hydrogen (and to a lesser extent helium) than any other elements. Russell, who served as one of her outside thesis mentors, suggested that her result stemmed from a problem with the physical theory she had employed and could not actually indicate the massive level of hydrogen and helium in stars her data implied. As described by Smithsonian Space Historian David Devorkin:

We know that her initial findings showed that hydrogen and helium were orders of magnitude more abundant in stellar atmospheres than the rest of the elements she examined. When Russell found this conclusion in her draft, he figured that something was amiss with the theory.

In fact, Russell’s own graduate student, Donald Menzel, had already found similar evidence of anomalously high levels of hydrogen in stars. Russell had rejected those findings as well, but described Payne-Gaposchkin’s work as displaying a “very much more serious discrepancy.” The result of this criticism, as described in a review of her autobiography in Science magazine, was that she significantly downplayed immensely important results:

The emerging view of the atom and the uncertain chemical origins of Earth, Sun, and stars were united in one thesis, in which Payne-Gaposchkin brilliantly demonstrated that all stars had nearly constant compositions. In addition, she found that stellar atmospheres showed enormously larger amounts of hydrogen and helium compared with abundances found in meteorites. Her superiors held a conservative view, however, and she wrote in her thesis that “the enormous abundance derived … is almost certainly not real,” thus bowing to authority and doubting her own remarkable results.

Later, after Payne-Goposchkin had moved on to other astronomical topics, Russell would confirm her then-disputed findings. Though he cited Payne-Gaposchkin’s work in that paper, much of the popular credit for that discovery at the time went to him and other male scientists. The conclusions that all stars are primarily composed of hydrogen allowed scientists to determine that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, as alluded to in the viral post.

Historical Context

Payne-Gaposchkin, born in the U.K. in 1900, began attending Cambridge University on a scholarship in 1919 and completed coursework in physics and chemistry among other subjects. Because Cambridge University did not provide equal standing to women until 1948, she received no degree. Instead, astronomer Leslie Comrie suggested to her that the United States would have more opportunities for her in the field of astronomy. Comrie introduced her to Harlow Shapley, then the director of the Harvard College Observatory, after a talk he gave in a lecture at Cambridge University. He agreed to hire her, and she moved to the other Cambridge on a fellowship.

The Harvard College Observatory was “a major force in the advancement of astronomy” in the early 20th century, and the facility played a major role in the early classification and cataloging of the major stars in our galaxy. It contained, at the time, the world’s largest collection of stellar spectrographic plates — the product of an early form of observational astronomy that imaged and mapped stars on chemically coated glass plates. Though they had been denied any actual titles or academic posts, women had, since the turn of the century, already played a major role in this effort. They served as “human computers,” crunching and meticulously cataloging data.

Payne originally went to Harvard with the intent of working with these plates to determine a relationship between a star’s temperature and the spectrum of light it released. Ultimately convinced by Shapley to pursue a dissertation based on her work, she became interested in what these plates might tell scientists about the relative abundance of elements in stars.

Because Harvard did not give Ph.D.’s to women, she received the first-ever astronomy doctorate from Radcliffe College, Harvard’s sister institution that is now part of Harvard University. She was the first person of any gender to receive an astronomy doctorate through the Harvard College Observatory, and her Ph.D. — awarded in 1925 — predates the formation of the Harvard Astronomy Department, which was founded in 1931. Her thesis became the first monograph published by the Observatory.

Devorkin, the Smithsonian historian, argues that political factors in academia, exacerbated by 1920s-era gender roles, could have led her to downplay her most significant results in that work. Unable to gain an academic post, she would be reliant on the same men who reviewed her work for future employment in the field:

The published form of her abundance discussion [in her dissertation] highlights not the discordances, but the striking similarity between celestial abundances and the relative abundances of the elements in the Earth’s crust. Indeed, she seemed to belabor this conclusion, drawing heavily upon the arguments Russell made in his brief study in 1914.

This was a brilliant political tactic, given Russell’s power. Cecilia Payne hedged her bets: unable to clearly state her findings as forcibly as she knew how, she decided to give Russell the credit for an old qualitative abundance picture she figured could well be thoroughly altered in time. […] If the problem was due to theory, then she was well advised to acquiesce. But if her abundances were right, then she would be ultimately vindicated. This explains why, in both her National Academy paper on abundances and her eventual thesis, she persisted in displaying her results for hydrogen and helium, both in tabular listings and discussion.

That vindication came when Russell, the Princeton astronomer, published his 1929 paper verifying her results. “Payne watched as Russell and others continually faced and tried to rationalize the hydrogen anomaly,” Devorkin wrote. “Her work was certainly not forgotten by Russell, who in 1929 finally accepted her conclusions and published a long paper in the Astrophysical Journal that laid out, in ways ApJ readers would accept, all the arguments that led to the still radical conclusion.” In that paper, Russell does credit Payne-Gaposchkin:

The most important previous determination of the abundance of the elements by astrophysical means is that by Miss Payne, who determined, by Milne’s method of marginal appearances, the relative abundance of eighteen of the most important elements.

In 1976, three years before her death, she would receive the prestigious (if not, in this case, ironically named) Henry Norris Russell Lectureship, which is awarded each year by the American Astronomical Society “on the basis of a lifetime of eminence in astronomical research.”

Individual Meme Claims

“Since her death in 1979, the [Cecili Payne-Gaposchkin] has not so much as received a memorial plaque. Her newspaper obituaries do not mention her greatest discovery.”

Though Payne-Gaposchkin’s contributions to the field of astronomy have historically been overlooked, she has received at least one physical memorial. In 2002, as reported by the Harvard Crimson, her portrait was added to the Faculty Room in Harvard’s University Hall — an honor that also spoke to the discrimination women in academia have historically faced. At the time of the Crimson’s reporting, “Only two of 49 portraits hanging in the room [were] of women.”

With regard to her obituary, it is accurate to say it did not mention her contribution to our understanding of the abundance of hydrogen in the universe. Here is how the New York Daily News reported her death on Dec. 9, 1979:

“Cecilia Payne’s mother refused to spend money on her college education, so she won a scholarship to Cambridge.”

This claim is partially true. Payne’s mother had supported her daughter’s education and scientific ambitions throughout her early life, but she did not have the money to pay the tuition to send her on her own. As she wrote in her autobiography, Payne-Gaposchkin “won the only scholarship large enough to pay my expenses.”

“Cecilia Payne completed her studies, but Cambridge wouldn’t give her a degree because she was a woman, so she said to heck with that and moved to the United States to work at Harvard.”

Essentially true. Payne-Gaposchkin entered Cambridge with a desire to study botany but became fascinated with astronomy after attending a lecture by astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington about his famous expedition confirming Einstein’s theory of general relativity. As a result, she took as much math and physics as possible for a woman at Cambridge University at the time, corresponded with and impressed Harvard College Observatory director Harlow Shapley, and won a fellowship to begin work there in 1923.

“Cecilia Payne was the first person ever to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe College with what Otto Strauve called “the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy.”

This is true and also undersells her achievements. She was also the first person to get a doctoral degree through the Harvard College Observatory, and her thesis was the first item published as a monograph by that institution. In 1929, noted astronomer Strauve did indeed write that her thesis was “the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy.”

“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.”

Though her work on stellar atmospheres served as the focus of her doctoral research, variable stars became a primary research focus of her career. She wrote multiple well-reviewed books on the topic, and her (and her students’) “analyses of variable stars laid the basis for all subsequent work on them and their use as indicators of galactic structure.”

“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).”

The “discovery” of what the universe is made of came from the discovery that stars — all of them, including our own Sun — have orders of magnitude more hydrogen than anything else. This is what Payne-Gaposchkin’s thesis hinted at and what Russell confirmed in his paper on the composition of the sun. Describing these two discoveries as different is misleading. As discussed above, her work was foundational to Russell’s paper, and Russell had previously encouraged her not to reach the conclusion he would later make on his own.

“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.”

This is true. Payne-Gaposchkin would be named as a lecturer in astronomy in 1938 after serving as Shapley’s assistant for many years. Not until 1956 would Harvard award her a full professorship, but she became the first woman in Harvard’s history to receive that honor. She also was appointed chair of the Department of Astronomy, becoming the first woman to chair any department at Harvard.

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