[Book] The woman who unravelled the sun

When Cecilia Payne suggested in 1925 that the sun is mostly hydrogen she was told that this was impossible. She would have to tow the line if she wanted a career in astronomy.

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That she may even earn a doctoral degree was exceptional for women at the beginning of the 20th century. To do this, Cecilia Payne moved from Cambridge, England, to Cambridge Massachusetts, USA. There was a programme at Harvard that encouraged women to choose scientific careers.

She threw herself into the study of stars’ spectrums to explore their atomic composition, a subject that was popular at the time. The general consensus was that the sun and the earth had roughly the same composition. The temperature difference was what created the difference in spectrum between them and the task was to explain this mechanism. But Payne reached a different conclusion: the composition was completely different. The sun was mostly made up of hydrogen and helium.

The problem was that the overriding consensus was unanimously supported by all three men who had encouraged her to start her research. Among them was her doctoral degree supervisor. But she maintained her calculations and her position in her thesis, only adding a disclaimer that there were so many uncertain factors that the conclusion may not be correct. The three men were happy. They had saved their protégé’s career from biting the dust.

Payne could smoke a whole pack of cigarettes using just one match

Undoubtedly sexism played a role, concluded science journalist Donovan Moore in his recent biography of Cecilia Payne entitled What stars are made of. But there was more to it than that. Payne had trained at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, the physics lab that cracked the atom in later years. She knew much more about physics theory than the astronomy community and used methods of calculation that were unknown at Harvard. Had she been a man, her ideas would not have gone down easily either.

This affair certainly features in Moore’s biography, but he also weaves a highly engaging personal story of her life, talking about her youth and her student life. Readers are taken on a road trip to the Grand Canyon and read how Payne could smoke a whole pack of cigarettes using just one match. Then there is her crazy trip, alone, through East Europe and Russia in 1933, where she met a Ukrainian who she married.

Funnily enough, that’s where the biography ends. Cecilia Payne had a successful career at Harvard up to 1966, but Donovan does not spend much time dwelling on it as the climax of her story and its aftermath – her doctoral degree supervisor came to the same conclusion four years later, and everyone believed him –  had already passed. So the biography, imbued with much loving detail, is snuffed out like a candle.

  • Donovan Moore, What stars are made of, the life of Cecilia Payne-GaposchkinHarvard University Press, 2020, ISBN 978-0-674-23737-7, 320 blz, € 26,-

Christian Jongeneel / Freelance redacteur

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