An Unknown Star

I’ve just finished a series of books about three extraordinary women. They hail from different time periods, different parts of the world, and different fields. Despite that, they all have two things in common: they broke new ground in their careers, and their achievements—and their names—are largely unknown. Their stories resonate with me for different reasons, which I’ll also share. Beginning this month, I’ll acquaint you with these women one at a time in hopes you’ll find them as interesting as I do.

In 1912, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s school principal told her she was “prostituting her IMG_0886gifts” by aiming for a career in science. Fortunately, young Cecilia didn’t listen. Payne-Gaposchkin became an astronomer, an expert on the cataclysmic nuclear explosions of white dwarf stars known as novae (plural of nova). As important as that work remains, her greatest contribution to the field is something very different: she demonstrated that normal stars—everything from our own sun to the stars at the edge of the universe—are composed of hydrogen and helium, with hydrogen far and away the most abundant element.

Unfortunately for Payne-Gaposchkin, her conclusion about the composition of normal stars contradicted conventional thinking of her day. Two distinguished astronomers, Henry Norris Russell, director of the Princeton Observatory, and Harlow Shapley, her faculty advisor and director of the Harvard Observatory, convinced her to attribute her results to an anomaly, rather than sticking with what the data demonstrated. Four years later, Russell reached the same conclusion as Payne-Gaposchkin had by a different method, and while her name was briefly mentioned in connection with the discovery, Russell has historically received credit for it.

However disappointed Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin may have been with that series of events, she spent the next 50 years working at the Harvard Observatory. She was the first person to receive a doctoral degree in astronomy from Harvard. In 1956 she became the first female advanced to the rank of professor at Harvard, as well as the first female to chair a department. Fellow astronomer Virginia Trimble writes in her introduction to Payne-Gaposchkin’s memoir that her “scientific record is remarkable by any standard.” Longevity aside (she published papers from 1923 to 1979), she remains among the very few astronomers to solve a major problem in the field as part of a doctoral thesis.

As outstanding as Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s achievements are, what I find most fascinating about her is that she persisted in the face of challenges that would have defeated almost anyone else. As the only female in advanced physics at Cambridge, she was ridiculed by professors and students alike. At Harvard, she was repeatedly passed over for positions for which she was the most qualified candidate. And when Donald Menzel succeeded Shapley as director of the Harvard Observatory, he was so appalled by how little she was being paid that he immediately doubled her salary.

Toward the end of her career, Payne-Gaposchkin wrote that being a woman hadn’t impacted the intellectual side of her life. But she went on, “On the material side, being a woman has been a great disadvantage….It has been a case of survival, not of the fittest, but of the most doggedly persistent.”

As an educator, I’m very supportive of recent initiatives to recruit more women into the sciences. But reading Payne-Gaposchkin’s memoir made me wonder about the challenges these young women face. I consulted my daughter-in-law, an astrophysicist, to get her take on the issue. She delivered both good news and bad. She indicated that the situation has greatly improved from Payne-Gaposchkin’s time. “Outward sexism still happens,” she commented, “but it is not institutionalized.” As for the negative, “People like to say that the gender imbalance in science is generational, but if that were true it would have been wiped out a couple of decades ago.”

My daughter-in-law went on to talk about the fact that she and her female colleagues are reminded daily that “they need to be louder and more forceful if they are to be considered contributors in science.” Why does that approach dominate, she wondered, instead of one where we teach men to listen better? Like Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, she is doggedly persistent, but it saddens and angers me that some things have changed so little.

Check the public library for Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s autobiography as it is absurdly expensive to purchase ($51.27 in paperback on Amazon). I can’t figure that one out, but it sure won’t help raise her visibility. Stay tuned for the next installment on remarkable women you’ve never heard of—this Frenchwoman was widowed at age 27 during the Napoleonic wars, and she became the most successful entrepreneur of her time.