The Woman Who Studied the Sun

File:Cecilia Helena Payne Gaposchkin (1900-1979) (3).jpg

Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin at work; Smithsonian Institute Archives via Wikipedia

I just came across this piece by John Gribbin, interesting for many reasons.
Glasgow University started awarding degrees to women in 1892; contrast Cambridge University’s 1948.
Auguste Comte, 1835: “We will never be able to determine the chemical composition of the stars”.
1802, Wollaston observes Fraunhofer lines
1814, Fraunhofer independently observes Fraunhofer lines. Perhaps a reader can tell me why they are named after Fraunhofer, not Wollaston
1859, Kirchhoff (of circuit laws fame) and, independently, Bunsen (of Bunsen burner fame) match Fraunhofer lines to atomic spectra, infer chemical composition of stars
1868, Lockyer correctly identifies third solar Fraunhofer line in “sodium yellow” region as due to a new element, names it “helium”
1892, Glasgow University starts awarding degrees to women
~1923 (see below), Cecilia Payne (later Payne-Gaposhkin) completes studies at Cambridge, but cannot formally graduate because she is a woman
1925, Cecilia Payne gains Ph.D. from Radcliffe; unravels highly complex (see below) Fraunhofer lines of stars; shows that, contrary to all then current expectation, stellar composition is dominated by hydrogen and helium
1948, Cambridge University starts awarding degrees to women


Posting this in response to a question I was asked.  It is essentially an extract from my book 13.8

Cecilia Payne won a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge (the only way she could have afforded a university education) in 1919. She studied botany, physics and chemistry, but also attended a talk by Arthur Eddington about the eclipse expedition on which he had famously “proved Einstein right” by measuring the way light from distant stars was bent by the Sun. This fired her interest in astronomy, and she visited the university’s observatory on an open night, plying the staff with so many questions that Eddington took an interest, and offered her the run of the observatory library, where she read about the latest developments in the astronomical journals.

After completing her studies (as a woman, she was allowed to complete a degree course, but could not be awarded a degree; Cambridge…

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About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on April 16, 2017, in History of Science and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. BTW, it strikes me that such a fundamental fact of astronomy that the Sun is mostly hydrogen, and that it was considered so difficult to accept. less than a hundred years ago.


    • Good point. An example of the effects of perspective on what seems plausible. There was as yet no account of how the heavy elements were made, whereas we now know themto be the products of mature or dying stars. Perhaps there was a tendency to believe that the stars and the planets were made of essentially similar stuff.


  2. There is more of interest about her discovery of the composition of the Sun, as reported in Wikipedia:

    When Payne’s dissertation was reviewed, astronomer Henry Norris Russell dissuaded her from presenting her conclusion that the composition of the Sun was predominantly hydrogen and thus very different from that of the Earth, as it contradicted the accepted wisdom at the time. She consequently described the result in her thesis as “spurious”.[8] However, Russell changed his mind four years later after having derived the same result by different means and publishing it. Although he acknowledged her work briefly in his paper, Russell was nevertheless often given credit for the discovery even after Payne’s work was accepted.[9][10]


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