Many scientists were wrong about what the sun is made-up for a long time, up until a 25-year-old extraordinary student wrote a doctor’s thesis proving that the sun and the other stars are mainly made of hydrogen and helium.
This groundbreaking discovery was made by a student named Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. However, she was robbed of the credit for one of the greatest astronomical accomplishments, and only a few people attribute this discovery to her.
Jeremy Knowles, the dean of the Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences said in 2002 that this woman who discovered what the universe is made of has not received a memorial plaque since she passed away in 1979, and her newspaper announcements did not mention her greatest discovery. Everyone knows that Newton discovered gravity, Darwin discovered evolution, and Einstein discovered relativity, but no textbook says who discovered that the most prevalent element in the universe is hydrogen. Cecilia lectured in the astronomy department after the award of her doctorate, and no one ever wonders how do we know about what the universe is made of. Her lectures have not been listed in the course catalog, she had no research leave, and her small salary had been categorized by the department under “equipment”. Yet, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin survived and flourished!
She was born in 1900 in Wendover, England, and she dreamt of becoming a scientist from a very young age. She was awarded a scholarship for Natural Sciences at Newnham College Cambridge University in 1929, and she was not awarded a degree even though she successfully completed her studies. Why? Because Cambridge did not grant degrees to women up until 1948.
When Cecilia realized that there are so little opportunities for women in the scientific community in the UK, her only option was to become a school teacher. However, she decided to continue to pursue a career in science after she met Harlow Shapley, the Director of the Harvard College Observatory, and she moved to the U.S.
Arthur Eddington, her former lecturer, wrote a reference in which he said that Cecilia had attained a very wide knowledge of physical science and possesses the valuable qualities of energy and enthusiasm in her work. He added that he believes she is the type of person who would devote her whole life to astronomy if given the opportunity.
She became a National Research Fellow at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1923, and she became the first person to earn a doctorate at Radcliffe College in 1925 for her graduate work done at the Harvard College Observatory in the field of astronomy.
Fellow astronomer Henry Norris Russel had doubts about her theory that stars are composed mainly of helium and hydrogen, and he persuaded her not to present her thesis. However, he published it himself in 1930 as his own discovery, which meant that Cecilia’s 200-page long research was ignored. She was basically robbed of her credit.
Astronomers eventually recognized her work, and Otto Struve even went on to describe her thesis as the “most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy”.
Believe it or not, she was again dissuaded from publishing her findings yet again, when she was talked away from publishing her discovery of the Stark effect. Her findings were eventually established and credited to other scientists.
She was given the title of Astronomer in 1938, and she held the position up until 1956 when she became the first ever woman professor at Harvard.
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin is known today as the greatest female astronomer in the history, and she persisted and paved the way for other women to pursue a career in science despite the severe gender discrimination she faced.