Cecilia Payne…worth knowing about:

 I’ll be off the blog for a few days…..see you soon!!!

“Since her death in 1979, the woman who discovered what the universe is made of has not so much as received a memorial plaque. Her newspaper obituaries do not mention her greatest discovery. […] Every high school student knows that Isaac Newton discovered gravity, that Charles Darwin discovered evolution, and that Albert Einstein discovered the relativity of time. But when it comes to the composition of our universe, the textbooks simply say that the most abundant atom in the universe is hydrogen. And no one ever wonders how we know.”

Jeremy Knowles, discussing the complete lack of recognition Cecilia Payne gets, even today, for her revolutionary discovery. (via alliterate)


Cecilia Payne’s mother refused to spend money on her college education, so she won a scholarship to Cambridge.

Cecilia Payne completed her studies, but Cambridge wouldn’t give her a degree because at that time there’s not much exposure for woman, so she said to heck with that and moved to the United States to work at Harvard.

Cecilia Payne was the first person ever to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe College, with what Otto Strauve called “the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy.”

Not only did Cecilia Payne discover what the universe is made of, she also discovered what the sun is made of (Henry Norris Russell, a fellow astronomer, is usually given credit for discovering that the sun’s composition is different from the Earth’s, but he came to his conclusions four years later than Payne—after telling her not to publish).

Cecilia Payne is the reason we know basically anything about variable stars (stars whose brightness as seen from earth fluctuates). Literally every other study on variable stars is based on her work.

Cecilia Payne was the first woman to be promoted to full professor from within Harvard, and is often credited with breaking the glass ceiling for women in the Harvard science department and in astronomy, as well as inspiring entire generations of women to take up science.

Cecilia Payne is awesome and everyone should know her.    (end)

Z:  A fascinating bit from Wikipedia on her:

However, when Payne’s dissertation was reviewed, astronomer Henry Norris Russell, who stood by the theories of American physicist Henry Rowland, dissuaded her from concluding that the composition of the Sun was predominantly hydrogen because it would contradict the current scientific consensus that the elemental composition of the Sun and the Earth were similar. In 1914, he had written in an academic article:

The agreement of the solar and terrestrial lists is such as to confirm very strongly Rowland’s opinion that, if the Earth’s crust should be raised to the temperature of the Sun’s atmosphere, it would give a very similar absorption spectrum. The spectra of the Sun and other stars were similar, so it appeared that the relative abundance of elements in the universe was like that in Earth’s crust.[15]

Payne consequently described her results as “spurious”. A few years later, astronomer Otto Struve described her work as “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy”.[16] Russell also realized she was correct when he derived the same results by different means. In 1929, he published his findings in a paper that briefly acknowledged Payne’s earlier work and discovery, including the mention that “[t]he most important previous determination of the abundance of the elements by astrophysical means is that by Miss Payne […]”;[17] nevertheless, he is often credited for the conclusions she reached.

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17 Responses to Cecilia Payne…worth knowing about:

  1. peter3nj says:

    Thanks for this brain food. Fascinating indeed and yet Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and Harpo – I mean Oprah Winfrey will continue to be hailed as the world’s most brilliant women (can we say women) of the 20th and 21st centuries.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. -FJ says:

    I love it when “normal science” stop being “normal”… and becomes extraordinary/ revolutionary, and “shifts the paradigm”.


  3. -FJ says:

    It shows that the world requires the contributions of both Fisher Kings AND fools!



  4. MAL says:

    It makes one wonder how many other unheralded folks are out there, not receiving the credit due them.


  5. Baysider says:

    A great story – and an interesting one! – that perfectly illustrates the saying that “science advances one funeral at a time.”

    A nod here to Candace Pert, another great mind that a ‘mentor’ tried to bury by stepping up to receive a prestigious science prize for her discovery himself. Her discovery? Driven to understand how morphine worked after taking it for the horrific pain of a broken back, she found the brain’s opiate receptor, which paved the way for discovering and understanding our own natural endorphins. And speaking of … wishing you plenty of your own this day.


  6. MAL says:

    Your post reminds me of another first suggested by a woman I heard about years ago. The white lines that divide our roads was suggested soon after the auto was invented. Apparently they were having concerns with folks staying in their lanes so she simply asked “why don’t they paint a line down the middle of the road”.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. MAL says:

    OH! BTW, Isaac Newton was wrong. There is no gravity.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Baysider says:

    Love that Mal – ‘paint a line.’


  9. Baysider says:

    oh, and the pun “earth sucks.” Took awhile.


  10. MAL says:

    Its true, Baysider! Often the answer is very simple, too simple sometimes for well educated professionals to think of, like the old one where a huge tractor-trailer had not heeded the low height of a tunnel and got his rig jammed completely inside before coming to a halt. While the driver, the cops, several engineers, etc. were trying to decide whether to cut the roof of the tractor trailer or chip the concrete inside the tunnel, a little boy came up and asked “Hey mister. Why don’t you just let the air out of the tires?” (he probably told the kid to go away, then suggested it).

    Liked by 1 person

  11. bunkerville says:

    Now if we can only figure out these UFO’s… will a woman do it? 🙂 Interesting story,


  12. MAL says:

    You’ve brought up an interesting subject, Bunk. I believe our government knows a LOT more about UFO’s and have since shortly after WW ll but kept it all under wraps. Why? Is anybody’s guess.
    What’s your take on UFO’s and aliens?
    (Area 51 here in Nevada)

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Baysider says:

    That suggestion, Mal, is like one that is screamingly obvious to make now: SPEND LESS!


  14. kidme37 says:

    Great post Z. Yes,an interesting story. I think it also points to how men have traditionally swept the genius of various women under the rug for years. Probably still do.

    UFO’s ? Nope. The logistics of flying vehicles getting here from even the nearest star, which is 4.3 light years away (26.1 Trillion miles) is totally absurd. Mother ship? Why do they all look different then? I could go on and on an on. And on about why the UFO story is BS.


  15. bunkerville says:

    Mal.. by now it seems that there is just too much to explain away….how about all those cows having something happening to them- ending up dead? Wow Nevada..keep an eye out! 🙂


  16. MAL says:

    Either way, I’m ready to yell “BEAM ME UP, SCOTTY!”


  17. geeez2014 says:

    OH, there are LOTS of women who’ve done amazing things……I featured this one because of her utter humility and being virtually ignored for many years….


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