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Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography And Other Recollections

by Dorrit Hoffleit

January 2006

The following is a review by Dorrit Hoffleit of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s autobiography that provides interesting insight of astronomy in the first half the 20th century as well as the professional lives of both these women astronomers. The article was originally was published in Sky & Telescope, September 1984, Vol 68, no 3. © 1984 by Sky Publishing Corp. Reproduced with permission of the publisher.

STATUS was not able to track down the original photographs from the Sky & Telescope article so we are showing similar photos from the Harvard College Observatory collection

“To see ourselves as others see us” is an oft-quoted admonition. The converse, however, is sometimes even more important: to show others how we see ourselves. Would that I had been aware, when I first knew her, of some of the things Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin has so candidly revealed in her autobiography, “The Dyer’s Hand” — the major part of the book under review. Then I would have understood and sympathized with her frequent displays of tantrums and ill-concealed jealousies. While well-nigh worshiping her superior intellect and evident accomplishments, I always felt in awe of her and somewhat terrified in her presence. It was clear why she should be jealous of the men at Harvard College Observatory, whose abilities (significant as they were) were almost to a man inferior to hers, while they enjoyed higher titles, more pay, and greater benefits than were accorded her. But how to account for jealously toward one like myself, whose abilities and position were so far beneath hers? At last I think I understand.

During the more than 25 years I worked under Harlow Shapely, I concurred completely with his philosophy that half one’s salary was the privilege of working at Harvard Observatory. Nowhere else in the world was there a collection of celestial photographs in which so many discoveries awaited keen and eager eyes. After I had been there only a few years, the projects I pursued were (with but a few major exceptions) largely of my own choosing. Shapley might suggest, but he never commanded. I assumed that this was the case with all the women who worked there.

Cecilia, the most brilliant among them, seems to have been a major exception. Her heart and soul were in spectrum analysis; in her 1925 Ph.D. thesis, she clearly demonstrated an outstanding ability. It would have been simple justice to let that exquisite brain pursue its own course, regardless of how valuable her services could be in other branches of astronomy. She was, for what we might consider political reasons, restricted in her spectroscopic investigations and forced into the photographic photometry, which would soon be replaced by photoelectric photometry (though at that time not yet practiced at Harvard). The curtailment of her spectroscopic research, it is now revealed, came about because the eminent Henry Norris Russell had an able student at Princeton interested in very similar problems.

Donald Menzel was sent to Harvard to write his doctoral thesis on an analysis of the Harvard spectra. At Russell’s suggestion — and this is not the only time Shapley curtailed a Harvard research project in deference to his mentor — Cecilia was the first restricted to investigating only half the spectral sequence, the other half being reserved for Menzel. (Ultimately Menzel, then Payne herself, covered the whole range.) Naturally she held Shapley primarily, if not entirely, responsible.

However, I cannot help but feel that Shapley’s hands were largely tied. When Cecilia had written her masterpiece thesis “Stellar Atmospheres” (described independently by both Russell and Otto Struve as the best Ph.D. thesis ever written), there was not yet an astronomy department at Harvard authorized to award the degree. Theodore Lyman of the physics department and A. Lawrence Lowell, then president of Harvard, were both adamantly opposed to awarding the degree to a woman. Shapley had to fight to get her the degree she had originally not really wanted, but for which she had qualified herself at his urging. That he succeeded was a triumph for both of them. But must he now continue always to fight on her behalf?

Russell was not only Shapley’s own esteemed professor; as an automatically recognized authority in all branches of astronomy, he was influential wherever he turned his attention. In her thesis Cecilia had made the remarkable discovery, far ahead of its time, that hydrogen and helium were the major constituents of the stars. Because Russell, in the light of then current knowledge, did not believe this, she toned down her conclusions by ostensibly admitting something must be wrong with her analysis. Should Shapley continue to encourage investigations that might go contrary to accepted beliefs?

Meanwhile, Shapley desperately needed improved photographic photometry; so why not assign Cecilia that task, instead of encouraging pursuits that could bring him into further embarrassment with his administrative and intellectual superiors? Small wonder that not many years later she felt jealous of someone free to work on her beloved spectra, even though that person was examining them from an entirely different standpoint (their practical application of luminosity and distance determinations, rather than her more erudite theoretical chemical and physical analyses).

At that time I was completely unaware that my own freedom of choice accentuated another’s sense of personal discrimination. I was puzzled why she should have turned her energies from the study of spectra, in which she was preeminent, to the light curves of variable stars. I simply assumed it was in deference to the interests of the astronomer she had recently married. Magnificent as her work on variables has been, I always felt it was something an equally industrious but somewhat less brilliant mind could have accomplished almost as well, while her outstandingly superior talents went to waste. This turn, it is now revealed, occurred because she was a woman in what was still mainly a man’s world. Unfettered, she probably would have outstripped the rival from Princeton.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, edited by her daughter Katherine Gaposchkin Haramundanis, is fascinating reading. The core of the book is Cecilia’s autobiography, “The Dyer’s Hand,” written shortly before her death. Jesse Greenstein of the California Institute of Technology, a former student of both Payne-Gaposchkin and Menzel, has supplied an introduction. Evaluating her early work, Greenstein concludes, “it showed the bravery and adventure of a mind exploring the unknown with the available scientific apparatus and a complete belief in the power of human reason and logic.”

Peggy A. Kidwell of the Smithsonian Institution provides “An Historical Introduction to ‘The Dyer’s Hand,’” revealing hitherto unpublished facts gleaned both from interviews and from Harvard’s archives. It is an elucidating and sympathetic account, again stressing her early spectroscopic investigations. Kidwell relates an amusing incident on the occasion of Cecilia’s preliminary written Ph.D. qualifying examination, where “Her reaction to the whole procedure is not recorded.” Her final oral examination is not mentioned at all in this book. However, I recall Margaret Harwood’s telling how, many hours after the examination, she found Cecilia weeping in her office because nobody as yet had told her whether or not she had passed. Her outstanding performance had been so obvious that nobody had deemed it necessary to inform the distraught student of the result!

Katherine Haramundanis has contributed 28 pages of “A Personal Recollection,” a warmhearted,
understanding account of the family’s life. Although she does not specifically say so, one feels Katherine appreciated the privilege of being the daughter of a great woman who, after working hours, was a loving parent, not always neat and tidy, but always inventive, constructive, and understanding. What wonderful times mother and daughter enjoyed touring Europe! This chapter brings out the best human aspects of a character, as no purely scientifically oriented biography could. It balances the story.

To Cecilia’s own account has been added her bibliography of some 350 references, including 11 books. A “Postlude” summarizes her curriculum vitae. The index requires mention. It refers only to “The Dyer’s Hand,” the major portion of the book. Unlike in most indexes, additional vital statistics not found in the text are provided here. Unfortunately, the sections by Greenstein, Kidwell, and Haramundanis are not indexed.

The book is clearly a credit to its editor. It is attractively printed and well illustrated. Only a few minor errors have been detected. On page 16, Harlan T. Stetson is cited as being at MIT, where he did indeed spend the last years of his scientific career, but at the time in question he was an assistant professor of astronomy at Harvard. Shapley was the Observatory’s director for 32 years, not “nearly 40,” as page 210 states. On page 256, “the first graduate student to receive a degree from Harvard College Observatory” should read “first... to receive a Ph.D. degree;” on page 29-30 we learn that Adelaide Ames received an M.A. the year before, in 1924.

I recommend this book heartily to all who knew Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, to all interested in the history of astrophysics, and particularly to all concerned about the history of discrimination against, and the advancement of, women in science.

When Cecilia was finally made a full professor after more than a quarter of a century of heartbreaking denial, she gives Menzel full credit. However, her promotion may not have been due so much to his belatedly found friendship as to the fact that the time was ripe. By then, the women’s movement was too far under way for any further procrastination to be tolerated in a case as strong as hers. The promotion was expedient for all concerned.

The lesson to be drawn from Cecilia Payne’s early work — and the nonacceptance of her surprising discoveries — should be: Do not discount your own well-considered results simply because they happen to disagree with currently accepted authority. As Maria Mitchell (1818-89), the first woman astronomer in America, said, “Until women throw off reverence for authority they will not develop. When they do this, when they come to truth through their own investigations, when doubts lead them to discovery, the truth they get will be theirs, and their mind will go on and on unfettered.” It is a pity that so many years after the first American woman astronomer, the greatest to date had to struggle, not for recognition, but for sheer justice.

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