Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin – A Held Back Genius

Everyone who gazes at the stars should know her name.

By rights, everyone who gazes at the stars should know the name Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. The fact that we don’t tells you more about society than it does about her. In her doctoral thesis in 1925, CPG was the first person to propose that stars were composed mainly of hydrogen and helium, making hydrogen the most abundant element in the universe.

I know that seems rather obvious to us nowadays (thanks to her), but at the time, astronomers and astrophysicists thought that the sun and the earth were composed of the same elements. They thought the only difference was temperature. That theory held for 11 years until CPG came along.

Unfortunately, her dissertation was reviewed by a male astronomer whom I won’t deign to name here, and he stood by the earlier theory that was posited by a male physicist whom I won’t bother naming, either. Sadly, times being what they were, this caused CPG to conclude that her results were wrong.

A few years later, the very astronomer who shut her down realized that she was right, because he came to the same conclusions by different methods. He published a paper about it in 1929, and although, to be fair, he did cite CPG with admiration, he often gets all the credit for the theory. (Isn’t that always the way? A woman’s genius must be validated by some man to be taken seriously.)

But this wasn’t the first time that sexism played a major role in CPG’s life, and it wouldn’t be the last. She studied at Cambridge, but wasn’t allowed to get a degree because Cambridge didn’t give degrees to women at the time, and in fact wouldn’t do so until 1948. She realized that the only way she could further her career was to move to America, where she received a fellowship to study at the Harvard College Observatory. She made the move in 1923. Harvard was where she wrote her dissertation and earned her PhD.

Sadly, women couldn’t become professors at Harvard at the time. So she continued her studies as a researcher, which was a title that carried less prestige and a lot less pay. And yet, she persisted. She published several books. Finally, in 1938 she was given the title of Astronomer and was allowed into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1943. She then taught courses at Harvard, but it was all very hush hush. Her classes didn’t actually appear in the catalog until 1945. She wasn’t promoted to full professor at Harvard until 1956. She then became the first woman to be the head of a department at Harvard. She retired from active teaching in 1966 and became an Emeritus Professor at Harvard, and continued her research until her death.

Among many other recognitions that she received at the end of her career, in 1977, she received a prize that was named after the very man who had originally squelched her dissertation. She deserved an award after 50 years of groundbreaking research. I don’t know how she felt about the award’s name, but I personally view it as one final slap. But it is rather consoling that she has an asteroid named after her, as well as a volcano on Venus, a telescope in South Africa, and and in 2008, a prize was finally named after her.

CPG (whom I was delighted to discover was a fellow Unitarian), passed away in 1979. She did a great deal to advance the field of Astronomy. It would be really interesting to know how much further she would have gotten if she hadn’t spent so much of her time having to spin her wheels beneath the weight of a foolish patriarchy.

I actually wrote this post a few months ago, but I kept pushing it further back in the queue as more time-sensitive posts came along. So I guess you might say that I upheld the long-standing tradition of holding Cecilia back. I’m not proud of that, but there you have it.

Check this out, y’all. I wrote a book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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