Monday, April 25, 2022

Cecilia Payne, an exceptional and forgotten woman

Every student learns that Isaac Newton discovered gravity or that Charles Darwin discovered evolution, but when it comes to the composition of the universe the texts say 'it turned out that the most abundant atom is hydrogen' but do not mention that it was Cecilia Payne who discovered it...

Cecilia, applying innovative methods of analysis that she had deepened on her own, calculated the abundance of chemical elements of stars from the observation of their spectra, showing that stars are formed mainly of hydrogen and helium. It was a revolutionary discovery!

Before 1925 the scientific community was convinced that the stars were composed mainly of iron, just like the nucleus of our Planet. A young English astrophysicist, however, thrown into doubt everything and forever changed the way she looked at the celestial bodies.

Cecilia was born in England in 1900 in Wendover. Orphaned by her father at only 4 years, she grew up with her two brothers and her mother Emma who assured all her children a solid education. Little Payne is immediately passionate about scientific work, not surprisingly her favorite subjects are mathematics, geometry, algebra and chemistry.

At the age of 12 he moved with his family to London. But Cecilia is a girl who is impatient with school and compulsory education: she wants to learn more, especially in the scientific field. So he began to study by himself until he arrived at St. Paul and then at the University of Cambridge.

Initially passionate about physics, she soon discovers astronomy, to which she will dedicate herself body and soul, but without being able to receive a degree as a woman. Cambridge University, in fact, will grant the degrees to women only in 1948. But this does not stop her: Cecilia wants to become an astronomer with or without the consent of society.

During her doctorate at Radcliffe College, the student prepared a thesis on the composition of the stars totally revolutionizing all the beliefs of the time. It was her, through her research, to prove that iron is not the main component of the stars and that, on the contrary, hydrogen and helium make up 98% of the stellar mass.

The scientific community criticized her work and Cecilia was forced to take a step back on the greatest revolution of the times. In 1929, however, the astronomer Henry Norris Russell - who had long hindered Payne’s work - came to the same conclusion, remaining for a long time, in the common imagination, the creator of the discovery.

What about Cecilia? She has continued to study the stars while finding, throughout her career, all the difficulties of being a woman in a male-only society. Thanks to her tenacity and stubbornness, she managed to become an ordinary professor at Harvard and president of the astronomy department. That was in 1956: for the first time a woman was so highly recognized at the American University.

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