Of Lost Time, a literary non-profit that publishes collections of historical and famous letters, has shared a missive that reveals the illuminating truth behind the answer to one of astronomy’s biggest questions: What is the universe made of?
Today, it’s an accepted fundamental concept in science that hydrogen, the simplest atom, is the basic building block of the universe. The credit for this discovery is generally given to an American astronomer named Henry Norris Russell, but a famous letter by Russell shows that the idea was first grasped by a young PhD student called Cecilia Payne.
Payne, who found her scientific brilliance stifled in England, discovered hydrogen in the stars in 1925 after moving to the U.S. to pursue her higher education. Of Lost Time shows how Russell, at the time Payne’s external dissertation advisor, wrote to convince her of the impossibility of her findings but later published a paper concluding the same result.
Payne’s story demonstrates the sexism that for so long held women back from pursuing successful careers in the field of science and how, almost 100 years after Russell’s discouragement, letters from the past can shed light on the women who helped shape our understanding of the universe.
Born in England in 1900, Cecilia Payne (her maiden name before she married in 1934 and became Payne-Gaposchkin) showed the makings of a great astronomer early on in life. She would later write that, at the age of five, she would look up at the sky and panic at the idea that “everything might be found out” before she was old enough to begin researching for herself. Seeing her daughter’s gift for science, Payne’s mother Emma enrolled her in St Paul’s School for Girls in London.
In 1919, Payne entered Newnham College at the University of Cambridge on a scholarship. At the time, the university did not offer women degrees, only “certificates,” and Payne often found herself humiliated during classes by her physics instructor Ernest Rutherford. Forced to sit in the front row as the only female student, Payne would endure Rutherford’s regular address to the class of “Ladies and gentlemen,” which he often spoke while making a point to gaze at her. As the male students applauded and stamped their feet at the joke, Payne recalls wishing she could “sink into the earth.”
Undeterred, Payne studied botany, chemistry, and physics, finding a passion for astronomy after attending a lecture by another teacher, the astrophysicist Arthur Eddington, on his work testing Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Eddington encouraged her pursuit of astronomy and engaged her in his research on stellar structures, while cautioning her that, after Cambridge, she would struggle to find any postgraduate or career opportunities as a female astronomer in England.
Luckily, Payne met the director of the Harvard College Observatory, Harlow Shapley, during his visit to the UK. Shapley supported her efforts and, thanks to a strong recommendation from Eddington, offered Payne a humble stipend as a research fellow. In 1923, Payne moved to the U.S. to begin work on a PhD under Shipley’s direction.
Two years later, in 1925, Payne became the first person to earn a PhD in astronomy from Harvard University. Her thesis, entitled “Stellar Atmospheres,” applied the cutting-edge theory of quantum mechanics to demonstrate that stars’ temperatures determined their spectra and that the abundances of the chemical elements were more or less constant throughout the galaxy.
Through her work, Payne stumbled across a hugely surprising discovery. She found that the most dominant element in stars, and thus the universe, was actually the lightest of them all: hydrogen. In fact, hydrogen is a million times more abundant than other elements. Today, physics students learn that the Milky Way Galaxy consists of 73% hydrogen and 25% helium, with all other elements making up the remaining 2%.
In 1962, the Ukrainian-American astronomer Otto Struve described her work as “undoubtedly the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy.” However, in the mid-1920s, Payne’s thesis contradicted the generally accepted wisdom that the Sun, a star, and the Earth, a planet, would provide similar spectra if measured at the same temperature.
Though her conclusion was incongruous with existing ideas, Payne’s gender, and therefore the likelihood of the wider scientific establishment taking her seriously, may also have played a part in the response from the prominent astronomers who read her dissertation.
Payne’s conclusion was instantly frowned upon by Henry Norris Russell, a respected outside examiner and director of the Princeton Observatory. Today, Russell is mainly known for creating and lending his name to the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, a scatter plot that demonstrates the relationship between a star’s luminosity, the total amount of energy it radiates, and its temperature.
Russell was a supporter of the ruling theory that the Earth and Sun had the same composition and dismissed her new hypothesis in a famous letter from January 1925.
Russell opens the letter by acknowledging that Payne has some “very striking results” that appear “remarkably consistent,” despite a few minor discrepancies that “can be easily cleared up.” He moves on to write that her conclusion about the levels of hydrogen, helium, and oxygen is a “much more serious discrepancy.” Russell remarks: “Here I am convinced that there is something seriously wrong with the present theory. It is clearly impossible that hydrogen should be a million times more abundant than the metals.”
Without Russell’s blessing, it was entirely unlikely the scientific community would accept Payne’s work, so the PhD student disowned her groundbreaking conclusion, writing “The enormous abundance derived for [hydrogen and helium] is almost certainly not real.”
A few years later, Russell would arrive at the same conclusion using a different method. In 1929, he published a short paper that influenced astronomers towards accepting the stellar abundance of hydrogen compared to that of Earth, and Russell became the man associated with the discovery.
Russell cited Payne’s thesis as a contribution to his paper, though never mentioned that he had originally criticised and rejected her, as it turned out, accurate findings. Nevertheless, by noting that his results agreed with hers, Russell indirectly acknowledged Payne as the first to discover that the Sun is mostly made of hydrogen.
As women weren’t allowed to enter the Harvard Academy at the time, after completing her PhD, Payne took on various low-paying jobs at the university. Though Payne taught graduate courses, the Dean and President of Harvard, Abbot Lawrence Lowell, refused to give her a formal position as an instructor or professor “as long as he was alive.” Despite Shapley vouching for her, and planning to appoint Payne as the first chair of his newly built department of astronomy, he realised Lowell would never allow it, so brought in a male astronomer instead.
Payne’s career purgatory continued for decades until the 1950s when, after Shapley and Lowell had both left their positions, the new director of Harvard Observatory Donal Menzel appointed her a full professor of astronomy and doubled her salary. This was such big news at the time that the New York Times reported the promotion in 1956. Later that year, Payne became the first female professor in her faculty and the first female department chair at Harvard. Today, her portrait hangs in Harvard’s University Hall, not far from that of Lowell’s.
Payne’s recognition came much later than that of a man with similar achievements would have. Repeatedly passed over for promotion and systematically discouraged, Payne’s ability to endure in the academic world illustrates her exceptional determination and skill.
It is remarkable that a now-famous letter by Russell should, almost one century on, bring to light the injustice of Payne’s story. It invites the question: How many more female scientists has history overlooked? The truth may lie in still more letters and missives as they make their way into the public consciousness.
In 1976, the American Astronomical Society awarded Payne its highest honour in recognition of a lifetime of excellence in astronomical research: the Henry Norris Russell Prize. If Payne harboured any resentment toward Russell, she never publicly acknowledged it and even referred to his 1929 paper as “epoch-making,” never mentioning her own work.
However, her daughter Katherine Haramundanis admitted that Payne did strongly regret not standing up for her monumental discovery in 1925, lamenting the decision for the rest of her life. In her autobiography, Payne wrote that it was her fault for not having pursued her point and giving into authority despite believing she was right. “I note it here as a warning to the young,” she commented. “If you are sure of your facts, you should defend your position.”
The remarkable astronomer died in Cambridge in 1979. Near the end of her life, she imparted one final piece of wisdom for young women eager to pursue a career in science. “Valeat quantum,” she wrote, referring to the Latin equivalent of the phrase “take it for what it’s worth.”
“Do not undertake a scientific career in quest of fame or money,” she explained, adding that the pursuit of science should be undertaken by those for whom nothing else will satisfy, as “nothing else is probably what you will receive.” Instead, Payne concluded, “Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. And if you achieve that reward you will ask no other.
Of Lost Time is the non-profit literary unit of Future Science Group, the London publisher that focuses on breakthroughs in science, medicine, and biotechnology. Of Lost Time publishes letter collections and other online resources, curating and highlighting famous letters of note sent or received by well-known figures and missives from lesser-known writers past and present. These famous letters allow members of the public to gain a deeper, more personal look at legendary and forgotten moments throughout history. James Drake, founder of Future Science Group and Of Lost Time, hopes that by enriching our understanding of the past through the words and memories of these letters, we can gain a better understanding of our present, inspiring greater empathy and optimism in humanity.
Some of Of Lost Time’s Letters for the Ages anthologies have covered topics like sport, incarceration, and the Holocaust. Its blog and video series include deeper dives into the insights provided by letters associated with influential individuals such as Mark Twain, Ludwig van Beethoven, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, and many more.