Advice to the Young from Pioneering Astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Who Discovered the Composition of the Universe
By Maria Popova
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 — overcame tremendous counterforces of cultural resistance to change our understanding of the cosmos and pave the way for women in science.
During her youth in England, Cecilia endured “concentrated agony” as she tried to perform the social dances in which her peers engaged and was taunted for being “a girl who reads Plato for pleasure,” as a friend of her brother’s scoffed. Disheartened but undeterred, she continued pursuing her intellectual passions. But upon completing her studies at Cambridge, she was not awarded a degree — the university wouldn’t accredit women for another half-century. Disillusioned with her prospects in England, she applied for a fellowship at the Harvard College Observatory, home to the trailblazing Harvard Computers. In her 215-page Harvard doctoral thesis of 1925 — a time when there was only rudimentary awareness of the existence of stellar nuclei and nuclear reactions — Payne-Gaposchkin found that stars were made primarily of hydrogen, illuminating for the first time the chemical composition of the cosmos.
In the introduction to Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections (public library), Virginia Trimble — herself an influential astronomer who at the age of eighteen had been profiled in Life magazine under the headline “Behind a Lovely Face, a 180 I.Q.” and who went on to become the second woman ever allowed at the famed Palomar Observatory a year after Vera Rubin broke the optical-glass ceiling — remarks that Payne-Gaposchkin was “pretty unambiguously the first woman to make original contributions in astronomy and astrophysics (in the sense we now expect of both genders as researchers) by inventing her own problems and solving them.”
Payne-Gaposchkin accomplished this despite the consistent institutional discrimination she faced on account of her gender and her youth, which rendered her so underpaid compared to her male peers at Harvard that she was too ashamed to admit her income to her family in England. But she found her scientific calling so deeply rewarding that she simply continued to work with rapturous rigor and devotion — and also played the violin, read broadly and voraciously, wrote poetry, pioneered the now-worn aesthetic of using lines from famous poems as chapter epigraphs in popular science books, and once needlepointed a supernova.
Looking back on the landscape of human knowledge over the span of her long career, she writes in her autobiography:
We know much less than we did when I came here as a student more than 50 years ago.
Shifting from the evolution of scientific knowledge to the evolution of culture, she reflects on what it takes to override the forces of resistance:
I have reached a height that I should never, in my wildest dreams, have predicted 50 years ago. It has been a case of survival, not of the fittest, but of the most doggedly persistent. I was not consciously aiming at the point I finally reached. I simply went on plodding, rewarded by the beauty of the scenery, toward an unexpected goal.
This appears to be a common sentiment among accomplished women in science — Vera Rubin, who confirmed the existence of dark matter, would echo it in her own thoughts on minimizing obstacles. Such a dogged devotion to the work itself, Payne-Gaposchkin asserts, is the single most substantive aim for anyone endeavoring to succeed — in science as much as in life. She writes:
Young people, especially young women, often ask me for advice. Here it is, valeat quantum [literally “equivalent amount” in Latin, an idiom for “(let it be worth) as much as it is worth”]. 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. Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. And if you achieve that reward you will ask no other.
Writing with humbling clarity of conviction, she extols the centrality of trusting one’s most authentic sense of purpose, untainted by external interference of other people’s ideas, expectations, and permissions of possibility:
There are those — and I am one of them — who rebel at having to deal with an intermediary. They want to go to the fountain-head. Someone who knows me well says that science, to me, has been a religious experience. He is probably right. If my religious passion had been turned toward the Catholic Church I should have wanted to be a priest. I am sure that I should never have settled for being a nun. If it had been directed toward medicine, I should have wanted to be a surgeon; nothing would have persuaded me to be content to be a nurse. As I look over the world of science, I picture most of the many women who are working in that field today in the role of nuns and nurses. They are not allowed — they are not supposed to be fit — to be in direct touch with the fountain-head, whether you call it God or the Universe. (But even as I write, this situation is changing.) Here I have had no cause for complaint. I have always been in direct touch with the fountain-head. No other mortal has made my intellectual decisions for me. I may have been underpaid, I may have occupied subordinate positions for many years, but my source of inspiration has always been direct.
Two years before her death, Payne-Gaposchkin builds on her reflections on the true rewards of science and the measure of success in her 1977 memorial lecture delivered upon receiving the prestigious Henry Russell Prize from the American Astronomical Society, excerpted in Clifford Pickover’s book The Stars of Heaven:
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; it engenders what Thomas Huxley called Divine Dipsomania. The reward of the old scientist is the sense of having seen a vague sketch grow into a masterly landscape. Not a finished picture, of course; a picture that is still growing in scope and detail with the application of new techniques and new skills. The old scientist cannot claim that the masterpiece is his own work. He may have roughed out part of the design, laid on a few strokes, but he has learned to accept the discoveries of others with the same delight that he experienced his own when he was young.
Complement this portion of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections with neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal on the six “diseases of the will” that keep the gifted from reaching greatness, astronomer Maria Mitchell on the art of knowing what to do with your life, and Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney’s timeless advice to the young, then revisit the remarkable story of how physicist Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission and paved the way for women in science against enormous cultural odds.
Published July 26, 2017