By Rita Patel
Editors Note: This is a three-part series by Rita in honor of Women's History Month. The next two articles will appear on the next two Mondays.
March is widely celebrated as Women’s History Month here in the United States, as well as in the U.K. and Australia. Although the success of women’s contributions throughout history should be celebrated all year long, an annual month-long reminder is a great way to learn more about the women whose past helped define our present.
It is no mystery that women can be demoralized and disregarded in academic and professional environments, but Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin’s experience is beyond belief. Born May 10, 1900, this astronomical superstar spent her graduate years at Radcliffe College (which would later be absorbed into Harvard University) staring at the Sun, which is really bad for your eyes.
In reality, Cecelia used the tools and theories available to her to determine the composition of the Sun. At the time, the boys club of astronomy was convinced that the Sun and other stars were of similar composition and matter to Earth. Cecelia’s doctorate thesis showed that while the Sun had the same elements present, it was largely composed of hydrogen and helium gas. A respected astronomer at the time, Henry Russell, told her it was “impossible” and included a footnote saying she was probably wrong. Except she wasn’t. She successfully defended her thesis.
It would take Henry Russell four years to catch up to the forward-thinking Cecelia and also agree that the Sun was, in fact, mostly hydrogen and helium. Meanwhile, Cecelia continued to excel in her career and eventually become Harvard’s first female astronomy professor. So, for Women’s History Month, we celebrate her and her accomplishments.
Up next week…. Maria Goeppert-Mayer
Rita Patel is a double-graduate from the University of Pittsburgh with bachelor and master of science degrees in Materials Science Engineering, as well as a certificate in Nuclear Engineering. She has been an ANS National Member since 2011 and currently works in Washington, D.C. You can experience her witticisms first hand on Twitter via @RitaTherPita.