Space and the commies (Survey 8: 1915-1925)


Charlestons and communists: science

Cecilia Payne at Harvard.

Cecilia Payne born on May 10, 1900 in England had an arduous path to becoming a prolific scientist in a male dominated field. In 1925, she became the first person to have a PhD in astronomy from Radcliffe College. Her thesis during her doctoral degree in astronomy called “Stellar Atmospheres, A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars” included calculations on chemical elements from stellar spectra. She used the ionization theory, developed by Indian physicist Meghnad Saha, to relate spectral classes of stars with their temperatures, meaning stars could be classified by their temperatures found. Meghnad Saha’s work from 1920 explained the thermal ionization of atoms by using an equilibrium equation that explained many properties of the stellar atmosphere which Payne had referred to in her thesis and studies. Through her studies, she supported the common belief that the Sun’s spectrum consisted of silicon, carbon, and common metals which was the same amount found on Earth. However, she discovered that helium and especially hydrogen were much more abundant, and that hydrogen was the most abundant element in the universe. Unlike Earth, hydrogen and helium are dominant elements of the sun and stars. However, since her thesis went against accepted wisdom of their time, astronomer Henry Norris Russell convinced her from including this discovery in her thesis but found out 4 years later that she was correct.

Physicist Doctor Meghnad Saha who developed the ionization theory
astronomer Henry Norris Russell who is often credited for the conclusions Payne reached in his publication

After her doctorate Payne studied stars to understand the structure of the Milky Way and produced a second book, “Stars of High Luminosity”, in 1930. This book consisted of over 3 million observations done by her and her assistants of variable stars. Payne-Gaposchkin, after marrying Sergei Gaposchkin, spent her whole career at Harvard. She worked without an official position and thus considered leaving due to the low recognition and in 1938 she was given “astronomer” as her title. In 1956, after Donald Menzel become the Director of the Harvard College Observatory in 1954, Payne-Gaposchkin became the first woman to become a professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard and later became the first woman to become department head at Harvard.

Harvard College Observatory








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