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Payne-Gaposchkin, Cecilia (Helena),

stellar stars harvard cambridge

née Payne (1900–79) British–US astronomer: the most eminent woman astronomer and a founder of modern astrophysics.

As a very English middle-class child, Cecilia Payne was sent to a church primary school. Precocious as a pupil in mathematics, languages and music, she also tested the efficacy of prayer by dividing her exams into two groups, and prayed for success in one group only; she got better marks in the group without divine help, and was agnostic thereafter. She went on to St Paul’s Girls School, Hammersmith, and to Newnham College Cambridge in 1919. In that year, lectured on the ‘eclipse expedition’ he had led whose results had verified predictions on the deflection of stellar images close to the Sun, and thereby provided experimental support for relativity theory. Cecilia Payne by chance attended the lecture; the experience changed her life and created the devotion to physics and astronomy which dominated it thereafter.

After Cambridge she took a fellowship to the Harvard College Observatory at Cambridge MA and spent her career there. The vast collection of stellar spectra gathered and classified by Williamina Fleming (1857–1911), and was available to her and provided rich material for her PhD thesis (the first in astronomy approved by Harvard) which was published in 1925 as Stellar Atmospheres . In it she used their data to deduce temperature, pressure and composition for a variety of stars, concluding that their composition was surprisingly constant, with helium and hydrogen as dominant constituents (although she hardly believed this herself for a time). Her work gave a new basis for astrophysics, although it was written too early for nuclear reactions to have a place in her thinking. Before she was 30 she had written another major book, on The Stars of High Luminosity (1930), the stars much used to find stellar distances. She never lost her passion for stellar spectra, but by 1942 she turned to the study of variable stars.

Valued by her peers but always underpaid, she became the first woman professor at Harvard only in 1956. By then she had married (a fellow astrophysicist, Sergei Gaposchkin, in 1934), had a family, travelled widely and been widely honoured. She was an active researcher until shortly before her death.

Payton, Philip A.(1876–1917) - Real estate developer, Chronology [next] [back] Pavlov, Ivan Petrovich

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