Stitching a Supernova: A Needlepoint Celebration of Science by Pioneering Astronomer Cecilia Payne
By Maria Popova
“The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer,” astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, wrote in a beautiful 1878 diary meditation on the needle as an instrument of the mind. “I am an instrument in the shape of a woman,” the poet Adrienne Rich channeled Caroline Herschel a century later in her sublime ode to the world’s first professional woman astronomer, who spent her mornings in needlework.
But nowhere is this strangely fertile intersection of needlepoint and astronomy more striking than in a forgotten labor of love by the English-American astronomer and astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (May 10, 1900–December 7, 1979) — the first person to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy at Radcliffe-Harvard and the first woman to chair a Harvard department.
In her autobiography, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections (public library), Payne recounts that she first fell in love with astronomy as a small child, when she saw a meteorite blaze across the sky. Her mother, wheeling young Cecilia in the pram, explained what the celestial sighting was and made up a rhyme to help the little girl remember it:
As we were walking home that night
We saw a shining meteorite.
The seed planted that night blossomed when Payne won a scholarship to Cambridge at the age of nineteen, plunging herself into the sciences. After attending a lecture by the great astronomer and mathematician Sir Arthur Eddington on his solar eclipse expedition confirming Einstein’s theory of relativity, she experienced “a complete transformation of [her] world picture,” as she recounted in her autobiography, and resolved to become an astronomer.
But although Payne completed her studies at Cambridge, she was not awarded a degree — the university wouldn’t accredit women until 1948, nearly half a century after Austrian universities began admitting women. Disheartened by her prospects in England, Payne applied for a fellowship at the Harvard College Observatory — home to the Harvard Computers, the trailblazing women who made major astronomical discoveries decades before they could vote — and went on to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe College, now part of Harvard.
In her 1925 doctoral thesis, Payne theorized that stars were made primarily of hydrogen, which rendered it by far the most abundant element in the universe — a landmark discovery illuminating the chemical composition of the cosmos. But when her dissertation was reviewed, a male astronomer persuaded her not to publish her conclusion because it challenged the era’s accepted theories. When that same astronomer changed his mind and came to the same conclusion himself four years later, he published it in a paper barely giving Payne credit for the discovery — a misattribution that persists to this day and is, of course, far from singular in the history of science: The same fate befell Beatrix Potter’s revolutionary theory of lichen reproduction, mathematician Sophie Germain’s work on elasticity, and, perhaps most notoriously, astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s Nobel-costing discovery of pulsars.
Still, Payne went on to become a tremendously influential astronomer, whose discoveries — particularly regarding the composition of stars and the structure of the Milky Way galaxy — have shaped our understanding of the universe, and whose prolific popular writing about astronomy has enchanted generations with the mysteries of the cosmos.
In the final years of her life, exactly half a century after earning the first Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe-Harvard, Payne did something wonderfully unexpected: She crafted a stunning yarn-on-canvas needlepoint depiction of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, or Cas A, on the request of her friend John R. Whitman. He had been captivated by an X-ray image of the supernova taken by an MIT astronomer, another friend of Whitman’s, which appeared in a cover story on supernovae in the December 1975 issue of Scientific American.
Whitman proceeded to print his needlepoint design on the largest civilian computer in New England, a machine used for guiding satellites and calculating massive sets of astronomical data. Enlisting the era’s cutting-edge technology in this intersection of art and science, he handed the needlepoint schematic to Payne, who gladly set to work.
Reporting on the project, planetary scientist and historian of science Meg Rosenburg quotes Whitman:
I met with Cecilia to inquire if she might have any interest in producing the first example of my design. She looked at me with her penetrating gray eyes, normally focused on stellar distances, and exclaimed that, yes, she would be delighted to create the Cas-A needlepoint. I was overjoyed.
There is something immensely touching about Payne’s gesture and its fusion of the grandest and the most intimate scales of existence, the astronomical and the deeply human: Here is one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century embarking upon a meticulous craftsmanship project, using an ancient art form to celebrate science and delight a beloved local friend by immortalizing an astronomical event that had taken place hundreds of years earlier, thousands of lightyears away.
But perhaps Payne undertook the project in no small part because supernovae in particular had a special personal significance for her, as reflected in this poetic recollection from her memoir:
The Bee Orchis was growing in the long grass of the orchard, an insect turned to a blossom nestled in a purple star. Instantly I knew it for what it was… I was dazzled by a flash of recognition. For the first time I knew the leaping of the heart, the sudden enlightenment, that were to become my passion. I think my life as a scientist began at that moment. I must have been about eight years old. More than 70 years have passed since then, and the long garnering and sifting has been spurred by the hope of such another revelation. I have not hoped in vain. These moments are rare, and they come without warning… They are the ineffable reward of him who scans the face of Nature.
My first sight of the spectrum of Gamma Velorum, the realization that planetary nebulae are expanding and not rotating…. the bright-line nature of the supernova spectrum, these are some of the moments of ecstasy that I treasure in retrospect.
With her penetrating gray eyes and her steadfast aged hands, Payne completed her needlepoint of the supernova in 1976, exactly forty years after the publication of her pioneering paper “On the Physical Condition of the Supernovae” (which was, incidentally, instrumental in dropping the hyphen from super-nova as it was originally spelled and advancing the modern spelling. In fact, Payne was something of a hyphen revolutionary — shortly before the publication of the paper, she had married the Russian astrophysicist Sergei I. Gaposchkin and changed her surname to Payne-Gaposchkin, becoming one of the first generation of professional women to hyphenate instead of adopting the husband’s surname.)
Complement with artist Judy Chicago’s iconic needlework celebration of women’s history in art and science, then revisit Dava Sobel’s fascinating chronicle of the Harvard Computers and artist Lia Halloran’s cyanotype tribute to women in astronomy.
Published May 10, 2017