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SCIENCE HISTORY IMAGES/ALAMY

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin investigated stellar composition for her PhD research.

The woman who


explained the stars
Public acclaim escaped the illustrious astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin;
a new biography sets her in the firmament. By Giuseppina Fabbiano

M
ale astronomers often achieve a What Stars Are Made Of: The Life She also discovered that hydrogen is the main
popular fame that eluded one of the of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin component of stars, followed by helium.
field’s most distinguished women: Donovan Moore Her discoveries and expertise were eventu-
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. That Harvard Univ. Press (2020) ally recognized with prizes and honours,
should be remedied by Donovan culminating in a life-achievement lectureship
Moore’s engaging and accessible biography. awarded a PhD in astronomy at Radcliffe from the American Astronomical Society.
It skilfully opens up Payne’s achievements and College, at the time the women’s branch The brilliance of Payne’s thesis was acknowl-
adventures by setting them in the global vil- of Harvard University in Cambridge, edged by the most prominent US astronomers
lage of astronomy, against the turbulent social Massachusetts. Her thesis on stellar atmos- of the early twentieth century: her supervisor,
and historical backdrop of twentieth-century pheres is her greatest contribution: she Harlow Shapley, director of the Harvard Col-
Europe and the United States. related the line patterns in the observed lege Observatory; and Henry Norris Russell at
In 1925, Payne was the first person to be spectra of stars to their physical conditions. Princeton University in New Jersey. But both

Nature | Vol 578 | 27 February 2020 | 509


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Books & arts
disagreed that hydrogen is the main compo- who were instrumental, with her, in opening from a different background. A committed
nent of stars. She based her theory on painstak- up the astrophysical approach to understand- scientist and mentor to a new generation, she
ing analysis of the large cache of stellar spectra ing the Universe and its components (Shapley, successfully juggled career and family with a
in the Harvard collection. It was informed by Russell, Menzel, Eddington). A reproduction of love of the arts and world travel.
the predictions of Indian physicist Meghnad Payne’s portrait in oils now hangs prominently Her autobiography (published privately as
Saha’s theory of ionization, which relates the in the lobby of the Harvard–Smithsonian The Dyer’s Hand in 1979, and publicly as Cecilia
observed spectrum of a stellar atmosphere Center for Astrophysics — a belated tribute Payne-Gaposchkin in 1984), is worth a read for
(assuming it is a gas in thermal equilibrium) to her hard work and dedication. its personal view of her multifaceted life and
to its temperature, pressure and composition. her interaction with observatory colleagues,
Her conclusion went against a view widely “Payne’s role stayed hidden including the female ‘computers’ who pro-
espoused by prominent astronomers, includ- cessed astronomical data. I also recommend
ing Arthur Eddington: that stars are made up of from the wider scientific for its immediacy her 1968 interview for the
essentially the same elements as Earth (silicon, consciousness for American Institute of Physics oral-history
carbon, iron and so on). In response to this several decades.” programme, conducted by Harvard astron-
criticism, and because she was anxious to get omer and historian Owen Gingerich (see
her results published, Payne downplayed her go.nature.com/37nm0vr). It captures her
finding as a possible error. Russell was later I met Payne in the mid-1970s. I remember essential briskness and rare ability to talk in
credited with the discovery, having reached her as a stern, chain-smoking presence stalk- complex and nuanced sentences.
the same result by different means. Payne’s ing the halls of the observatory: she scolded
role stayed hidden from the wider scientific me for being late for a meeting (recently Giuseppina Fabbiano is senior astrophysicist
consciousness for several decades. arrived from Italy, I regarded being precisely at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard &
on time as impolite). After reading Moore’s Smithsonian in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
Reaching for the stars well-researched book, I realized that she was and head of the Chandra X-ray Center Data
Moore illuminates Payne’s development into a complex figure with whom I can empathize Systems Division.
a remarkable scientist. Her mother had exten- despite being two generations younger and e-mail: gfabbiano@cfa.harvard.edu
sive interests outside the home — a rarity in
upper-class Edwardian England. Hours spent

Apocalyptic
in the household’s library equipped Payne with
a knowledge and appreciation of the classics,
music and theatre. After the First World War,

archaeology
although shy, she won over mentors and spon-
sors to help her study physics at the University
of Cambridge (which did not award degrees to
women at the time). There, she was influenced
by Eddington and atomic physicist Ernest
Rutherford.
In 1923, Payne set sail for the United States
After a century of work, archaeologists are still tantalized
at Shapley’s invitation, having secured fund- by the secrets of Armageddon. By Andrew Robinson

“W
ing to become a research scientist at Harvard
College Observatory. Shapley promoted her
talents, but also exploited her. He encouraged elcome to Armageddon,” information, personal anecdotes and inter­
her research and at her request hired Sergei say Israeli tour guides, as personal struggles, beginning with the first
Gaposchkin, a Russian astronomer escaping groups from many countries dig, in 1903–05. The whole benefits from
Europe just before the Second World War, who climb the steep incline of Cline’s personal experience. Over ten seasons
eventually became her husband. But he paid the archaeological mound from 1994 to 2014, starting as a volunteer, he
her poorly, so that she and Gaposchkin could Tel Megiddo, southeast of Haifa and close to dug in most areas opened up by a Tel Aviv Uni-
not afford childcare, and their three children Nazareth. Within it are the remains of at least versity expedition, rising through the ranks to
were often seen playing at the observatory. 20 cities, piled up, dating from about 5000 become co-director with Israel Finkelstein.
He also kept her low in the professional bc to the fourth century bc. Passing through
pecking order, even advising another institu- the current gate, the tourists often burst into “An older stratum
tion against hiring her to a prominent position. hymns or prayer.
She seems to have accepted this as a fact of life, “Our small group of archaeologists smile
revealed fire-blackening
but I wonder how things would have turned out tolerantly,” recalls Eric Cline in Digging Up and crushed skeletons.”
had she received proper professional recogni- Armageddon. They have been digging since
tion earlier. It was only in 1954, after Shapley before dawn to avoid the heat. A chain-link
was replaced as director by Donald Menzel, fence around the excavations jokingly requests: The book, however, focuses firmly on
that she received a reasonable salary. Two “Please do not feed the archaeologists.” 1925–39, the most revealing period of excava-
years later, at the age of 56, she was awarded Thus opens an original and lively study that tions. These were run by the Oriental Institute
a Harvard professorship. skilfully mixes archaeology with personalities, at the University of Chicago, Illinois, under its
Payne remained at the observatory until her and politics with culture, science and tech- inaugural director, Egyptologist James Henry
death in 1979. The friends she amassed read nology — such as the pioneering 1929 use of Breasted, who coined the phrase ‘Fertile
like a who’s who of early-twentieth-century a crewless hydrogen balloon to photograph Crescent’. Funded by business magnate John
physics and astronomy. They included those an archaeological site from the air. Dry and D. Rockefeller, the digs were set against the
responsible for pushing the new atom theory detailed analysis of strata and objects mingles troubled political background of the British
(Rutherford, J. J. Thomson) and astronomers with heroic archival excavation of biographical Mandate for Palestine, a territory established

510 | Nature | Vol 578 | 27 February 2020


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