Review: Priyamvada Natarajan on Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

On June 21, 1956, The New York Times reported, “Harvard University announced today the appointment of Dr. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin as Professor of Astronomy. She is the first woman to attain full professorship at Harvard through regular faculty promotion.”

That this was a newsworthy item for a national newspaper in 1956 is not surprising. The 2019 Report on Women in Physics and Astronomy from the American Institute of Physics notes that as of 2014, only 10 percent of all full professors were women, while African-American and Hispanic women remain acutely under-represented.

Donovan Moore’s meticulous new biography What Stars Are Made Of: The Life of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin recounts the remarkable story of this unusually gifted scientist. We often wonder whether the early lives of exceptional people hold clues to their future success. Moore has deftly traced the arc of Payne-Gaposchkin’s childhood and shows us that she was indeed rather unusual from the start. A typical English schoolgirl of the time, would have “learned from her childhood that worldly success was unfeminine, and even in areas where women might achieve success, it was unfeminine to seek to earn it”—but not Cecilia. Restless by nature, she was burning with ambition and a deep desire to make an original scientific contribution.

She entered Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1919, and her timing was near-perfect for a future life in science. After the end of a horrific war, economies were on the upswing, there was a buoyant sense of optimism, and many scientific breakthroughs were set to happen, with Cambridge notably at the epicenter. Moore captures the atmosphere of Cambridge and transports the reader to its dreamy spires and lazy punting on the river Cam. At Cambridge students learn and solve problems one-on-one with a senior scientist, obliging them not only to formulate solutions but defend them against a formidable questioner. Many of Cecelia’s professors and tutors (L.J. Comrie, E.A. Milne, Arthur Eddington, Ernest Rutherford) were themselves developing new theories and making fundamental discoveries in atomic physics, astronomy, and chemistry, and she had a ringside seat at this process well before she could participate herself. Cecilia’s ability to question critically and argue the case served her well when she decided to cross the pond and move to where the action and academic opportunities were in the United States—Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She arrived in the 1920s in the midst of a momentous mapping exercise—a project to document and measure the spectrum of every star possible. Dava Sobel recounts in a recent book, The Glass Universe, the key role played in the project by “human computers,” women who were diligently analyzing the glass plates that yielded the results. Although Payne-Gaposchkin was not a “human computer” herself, she knew two of them well, Antonia Maury and Annie Jump Cannon; sadly, she did not meet the intellectual giant Henrietta Leavitt, although she inherited her desk. Leavitt’s analysis of the variability of Cepheid stars had provided a brand-new ruler to measure cosmic distances that was instrumental in the discovery of the expansion of the universe by the astronomer Edwin Hubble in 1929.

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Payne-Gaposchkin’s own contribution to astronomy was fundamental and transformative. Stars emit energy, but not uniformly across wavelengths; it is distributed over a range, and this unique pattern, their cosmic fingerprint, is referred to as the stellar spectrum. The Indian physicist Meghnad Saha had recently formulated an equation proposing that the lines observed in a star’s spectrum telegraphed its temperature and pressure. This remarkable claim suggested that there was a profound link between the stellar spectrum and Niels Bohr’s 1913 description of the nuclear structure of the atom, but it was a theoretical claim that had not been verified empirically. With the treasure-trove of data that Payne-Gaposchkin had access to—hundreds of thousands of stellar spectra at the Observatory—she made a fundamental discovery. Her calculations based on Saha’s equation and the analysis of spectra revealed that hydrogen was the most abundant element in all stars and, by extension, the universe. Stars, she claimed, were chemically homogenous and were composed primarily of hydrogen (a million times more than predicted) and helium; the differences between various types of stellar spectra arose not from the difference in their internal compositions but rather their varying temperature and pressure. This finding, part of her PhD thesis titled Stellar Atmospheres, was extremely controversial when she published it, but was eventually shown to be correct. And it has stood the test of time.

Moore traces the acceptance of this radical idea and captures the social milieu and the personality politics characteristic of academic research in vivid detail. Despite numerous obstacles and struggles, Payne-Gaposchkin’s intellectual contributions were recognized during her lifetime; she was finally able to join the faculty ranks due to then Observatory Director Harlow Shapley’s ambition to create a new department of Astronomy at Harvard and to populate it with outstanding scientists. Cecilia’s legacy is still celebrated—the American Physical Society (under my watch as chair of the Division of Astrophysics) recently named its annual prize for outstanding PhD thesis in astrophysics the Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin Prize.

Looking back at her life, Cecilia herself reminisced about what had enabled her success: “I have reached a height that I should never, in my wildest dreams have predicted fifty years ago. It has been a case of survival, not of the fittest, but of the most doggedly persistent.” Sadly, this still rings true—perseverance remains a necessity for ambitious women no matter how great their abilities.

Priyamvada Natarajan is a Professor in the Departments of Astronomy and Physics at Yale and the Sophie and Tycho Brahe Professor at the Dark Cosmology Center, Niels Bohr Institute, at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. She is the author of Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the CosmosShe was the first woman in Astrophysics to be elected a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Book notes
The good news is that reading is something very easy to do safe and sound alone in your house! Reading is the original virtual shared experience, putting you inside another mind when you’re alone and transporting you into experiences beyond your tiny own. When my suddenly-home teenager wanted to play Scrabble yesterday, I began to see the possibilities of this new era.

However, like all vulnerable industries and local retail, the already rickety infrastructure for putting books in people’s hands is deeply threatened by the moment we find ourselves in. Independent booksellers, whose resilience against the threat of online retail precisely owed to the benefits of in-person gathering and one-on-one conversation, is already hit hard. Bookstores, operating on shoestring margins, cannot pay the rent and cover operating costs without a steady stream of sales. Powells has begun laying off staff (as well as NYC’s own McNally Jackson), and Barnes & Noble has warned workers that layoffs are on the horizon. The Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which provides emergency relief to bookstore employees, is (fortunately) receiving record donations, with $100,000 from the American Booksellers Association and $50,000 from publishing giant Harper Collins. (The big five publishers, dependent on Amazon for sales, have not always been so mindful protecting independent booksellers’ contribution to book culture.)

But booksellers are hanging on and seeing a surge in remote sales from their loyal customers. (They are getting some benefit from Amazon’s de-prioritizing non-essential deliveries.) Authors are encouraging readers to support local booksellers on social media. Many stores are cutting shipping costs for online orders and offering curbside pickup (“like a pizza takeout place,” The Raven’s Danny Caine told The New York Times), or delivering books by bike, like Onyew Kim of Atlanta’s A Cappella Books. The Raven also created a program for donors to support curated gifts of books to deserving folks readers can nominate online. At Capitol Hill Books you can reserve an hour to yourself in the store. East Bay Booksellers reminded readers that buying a gift card is like giving a store a low-interest loan. The audiobook provider has created a special offer giving new members two audiobooks for the price of one, with the full payment going to the partner bookstore, for members who sign up using the code SHOPBOOKSTORESNOW. And readers are taking their book groups, which have been a staple of bookstore community life, virtual, both supporting reading and book-buying and stemming the loneliness of the age of social distancing. Author Robert Macfarlane, reviewed for Book Post by John Banville, invited readers to join a Twitter reading group.

Authors are also scrambling to come up with remote variants on the book tour, an important source of attention for new books and of sales for stores. Washington DC’s legendary Politics and Prose announced that they would henceforth be streaming their book events. Ally Kirkpatrick of Old Town Books invited authors to teach a one-hour online class through her store. Author Matt Bell invited writers to a virtual happy hour, with readings, to keep people in touch.

First-time novelist (and “well-known ham”) Hillary Leichter told The New York Times that she had big plans for the launch last Friday of her new book Temporary at Brooklyn’s Books Are Magic and was devastated when her whole tour was cancelled. But then the store’s owner, author Emma Straub, and her publisher, also-author Emily Gould, invited her to do an Instagram Q&A (“They even let me sing a couple of songs on my ukulele”), and her husband threw her a surprise launch on Zoom: “There were so many friends from near and far, and my mom was even able to join the video!,” she told the Times. “People were on the chat with their babies, their toddlers, their dogs. Whole families were able to attend! There were old friends from high school and college, and friends from Twitter and the writing world who I have still never met in real life. It was incredibly moving … That’s something that never would have happened at a live event. It had a different, cozy energy, kind of like a literary sleepover.”

So perhaps, as technology writer Kevin Roose recently vetured to hope, we will find new ways to live in this reality that offer their own kind of blessings.

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Image: Portrait of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin by Patricia Watwood (2001). When it was unveiled in 2002 it was one of only two portraits of women in the Faculty Room of Harvard’s University Hall. The painting was commissioned by Dudley R. Herschbach with money he received for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry; Herschbach has advocated for more women on the faculty and "affirmative action for portraits.” It is modelled on Vermeer’s The Astronomer at the Louvre. Oil on linen, 47” x 38”.  Collection of the Harvard Art Museums © Patricia Watwood