Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin is high on my list of people I wish I could invite to a dinner party. She was a diligent, dedicated, hardworking woman and a world class astronomer.
Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin was born on May 10, 1900, in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, England, and died on December 7, 1979 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And oh, what a life she lived in those 79 years. She was the first person to earn a PhD in astronomy from Harvard University. She was the first woman to become a professor in her department and the first woman to become a department chair at Harvard. In 1976, the American Astronomical Society awarded her the Henry Norris Russell Prize, its highest honor, in recognition of her lifetime of excellence in astronomical research.
But the prizes and accolades at the summit belie the obstructions and obstacles in the climb. Gaposchkin began her academic studies in Cambridge, England, in the 1920s. She prohibited from sitting in the same rows of seats as her male classmates. The University prohibited her from receiving a degree. Even though she fulfilled all the requirements, women were only granted ‘certificates.’
In 1923, she moved to the United States and began her studies at Harvard, where she completed her PhD in 1925. Her dissertation showed that helium and hydrogen were the most common elements in the stars and in the universe. That contradicted the scientific consensus of the time, and her findings were highly controversial. Her work was dismissed, and she took on less prestigious, low paying research jobs at Harvard. But she worked, and she worked in her chosen field. (Her discovery was later credited to Henry Norris Russell of Princeton University, who reached the same conclusion by different means. Gaposchkin’s role in the discovery remained in the background for decades.) But she worked, and she worked in her chosen field. Eventually, she claimed some small measure of recognition.
I highly recommend her autobiography for her personal views on her life, and to taste both her brisk style and her ability to communicate both complexity and nuance.
Reflecting on the way her dissertation findings were treated, Gaposchkin said, “I was to blame for not having pressed my point. I had given in to Authority when I believed I was right. That is another example of How Not To Do Research. I note it here as a warning to the young. If you are sure of your facts, you should defend your position.”
When asked for advice, Gaposchkin often said: Do not undertake a scientific career in quest of fame or money. There are easier and better ways to reach them. Undertake it only if nothing else will satisfy you; for nothing else is probably what you will receive. And yet, there is nothing personal in the thunderclap of understanding. The lightning that releases it comes from outside oneself. Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. Indeed, the reward of the young scientist is the emotional thrill of being the first person in the history of the world to see something or to understand something. Nothing can compare with that experience. The reward of the old scientist is the sense of having seen a vague sketch grow into a masterly landscape. If you achieve that reward, you will ask no other.
How I wish I could sit with her, share an evening and a glass of wine, and explore the contours of her mind.