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Cecilia Payne revolutionized our understanding of what stars are made of despite initial skepticism

'The dean of American astronomers,' Henry Norris Russell, wrote to the phenomenal astronomer, saying that her findings were 'clearly impossible.'

Cecilia Payne revolutionized our understanding of what stars are made of despite initial skepticism
Cover Image Source: YouTube | Brown University Department of Physics

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was a phenomenal woman and astronomer who discovered what stars are made of. Many did not believe her findings but she persevered. She became the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from Radcliffe College and the first to be a professor at

Harvard. Payne-Gaposchkin has been credited with the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy and is believed to be the most eminent woman astronomer of all time, reports BBC Science Focus. She was also the first woman to receive the American Astronomical Society’s “lifetime of eminence” award.


It all started nearly 100 years ago when Payne-Gaposchkin—who was in her early 20s at the time—secured a fellowship at the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge. Through her research, she learned that hydrogen was far more prevalent in the universe than previous studies stated.

In fact, it was a million times more prevalent! No one dared to question the established theories at that time, much less based on a woman's findings. "The dean of American astronomers," Henry Norris Russell, who was the head of the Princeton Observatory, wrote to Payne-Gaposchkin telling her that her findings were “clearly impossible.”


According to Scientific American, Payne-Gaposchkin's biographer, Marissa Moss shared on an episode of the "Lost Women of Science Shorts": "Astrophysicist Arthur Stanley Eddington who was her mentor and whom she respected so much when she sent him the paper, said, 'Oh, you mean hydrogen and helium on the surface?' And she says, 'No, no, I mean the entire star. Inside. They’re entirely hydrogen and helium.' Nobody could quite conceive of that. She changes the way they see the stars themselves. It really shifted. It would be as if you said, 'The earth really is round, not square, not a table.' It's that kind of shift in people's thinking. I mean, it just reshifts the way you look at the universe." 


What's frustrating is that Russell later acknowledged that she was correct but he mentioned it only toward the end of his paper. Russell ended up getting most of the credit when he could draw the same conclusions utilizing a different process. Cecilia later said in her autobiography, "I was to blame for not having pressed my point. I had given into authority when I believed I was right. I note it here as a warning to the young. If you are sure of your facts, you should defend your position."


Just three years before her death in 1976, she became the first woman to be awarded the Henry Norris Russell Prize. Yes, the prize was named after the same man who doubted her initially. Towards the end of her memoir, she advised young women, "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. Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb and if you achieve that reward, you will ask no other.”


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