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A new biography tells the tale of an accomplished astronomer’s barrier-breaking life

What Stars Are Made Of: The Life of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Donovan Moore
Harvard University Press
2020
320 pp.
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In the early 20th century, astronomers believed in a uniformity principle that held that all objects in the universe were made of the same elements, in approximately the same amounts. In 1925, however, Cecilia Payne, a Ph.D. student at Harvard, discovered that stars are composed of a million times more hydrogen than was previously assumed. But because she was young and female, the scientific community rejected her findings. It would take several decades before Payne-Gaposchkin received the recognition she was due. In What Stars Are Made Of, using compact and skillful prose, Donovan Moore charts Payne-Gaposchkin’s scientific life from grade school standout to world-class astronomer.

Moore includes impressive context on the misogyny that existed within British academic society at the turn of the 20th century. He notes, for example, the Cambridge University tradition wherein, when women entered a lecture hall, the roomful of men would stomp along in time with the women’s footsteps. It was a culture of discrimination that at times turned violent, as it did on 24 October 1921, when the university announced its decision to grant women “titular degrees,” and a furious mob of Cambridge men stormed the women’s college, bashing in its iron gates with a coal cart.

The reader meets physics luminaries and future Nobel Prize winners in the Cavendish laboratory, where Payne-Gaposchkin trained as an undergraduate. The lab was directed by J. J. Thomson when she arrived and Ernest Rutherford when she left. (Thomson, incidentally, believed that women “simply did not have the intellectual capacity to be world-class physicists.”) Payne-Gaposchkin was also taught by Niels Bohr, whose quantum theory of atomic structure would enable her to come to her own revolutionary conclusions.

By the end of her time at Cambridge, it had become clear to Payne-Gaposchkin that she would never be employed as an astronomer in England. So she secured a fellowship at the Harvard Observatory and moved to America. Here, she was granted research opportunities, but the discrimination she had experienced at home continued.

One of the most egregious perpetrators of this discrimination was Harvard’s president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, who declared that Payne-Gaposchkin would never be named a professor as long as he was alive. “Lowell had tried to limit Jewish enrollment at Harvard to 15 percent, and he tried to ban black students from living in the freshman dorms. In both instances, the Harvard Board of Overseers overruled him,” writes Moore. “The board did not overrule him, however, when he decreed in 1928 that women should not receive teaching appointments from the Harvard Corporation.” Payne-Gaposchkin was devastated: “ ‘I had no official status,’ Cecilia recalled. ‘I was paid so little that I was ashamed to admit it to my relations in England.’”

Despite these and other hardships, Payne-Gaposchkin’s accomplishments were remarkable. She wrote several books and more than 270 journal articles, was elected to both the Royal and American Astronomical Societies and the American Philosophical Society, earned an honorary doctorate from Smith College, and was the first woman to receive the American Astronomical Society’s lifetime achievement award. In 1956, after Lowell’s death, she was named the first female professor at Harvard. She died just before the election that would have admitted her to the National Academy of Sciences.

To Moore, Payne-Gaposchkin was the classic driven scientist. “She endured everything from laboratory slights to classroom derision because there was no choice. She was driven to understand, which meant that nothing in the way would stop her.” This is a view Payne-Gaposchkin echoed in her own memoir: “Do not undertake a scientific career in quest of fame or money. There are easier and better ways to reach them. Undertake it only if nothing else will satisfy you; for nothing else is probably what you will receive.”

About the author

The reviewer is a physics professor and freelance writer in Los Angeles, CA, USA.