Not a household name, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin is one of the unsung heroes of 20th century science.
Born in Wendover, England, as Cecilia Payne, her father died when she was just four years old, forcing her mother to raise the family alone. With her mother deciding to spend no money on her higher education, Cecilia won a scholarship to Cambridge University, where she discovered a lifelong love of astronomy. Here, she completed her studies but did not receive a degree because she was a woman. For this reason, Cecilia left Britain to study astronomy at Harvard. In 1925, her dissertation on the chemical constitution of the stars was described as “undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy”. She observed that the sun must comprise a million times more hydrogen than believed, and vastly more helium. Dissuaded from publishing this by her tutor, Henry Norris Russell, her contribution to astronomy remained unrecognised, especially after Russell published the same findings himself four years later.
Nevertheless, Payne continued at the cutting edge of science. Her observations and analysis of variable stars laid the basis for all subsequent work on them. She was the first woman ever to be made a full professor by Harvard University and is an unrecognised genius of science.
“Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s natural brilliance could not be dimmed by the conventions of a society still agonising over whether to give women the vote. She remains a brilliant role model for everyone who has struggled against societal expectations just to be themselves.” – Bernardo Moya
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