Dara Horn is an undergraduate at Harvard University studying comparative
literature. She is currently working with astronomer Margaret J. Geller on a
documentary about Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.
I have always been fascinated by scientists, because they appear to
be the only people in the world who are immune to personal
pettiness. Most people's careers are based on getting ahead, perhaps even at
the expense of others. The scientists' goals, on the other hand, are not
personal but collective. We imagine that their work is exclusively dedicated
to the betterment of humankind.
As a student of literature, I am often asked to consider the life stories,
motives, and intentions of the authors whose work I examine. If I were
studying politics or history, I would concern myself even more about the
personal conduct of the people I studied. But while a juicy biography of
Darwin or Einstein would certainly make a good read, there exists a
widespread belief among nonscientists that the motivations of researchers
are secondary to their discoveries. Scientists are somehow outside of
society, freed from its concerns in order to pursue knowledge for us all, or
so those of us who are not scientists like to believe.
I imagine that most essays in this series will address the effects of
science on society, whether good or bad. But the story I am about to tell
demonstrates the effects of society on science--effects that have the
potential to be very damaging. In 1925, a 25-year-old graduate student at
Harvard discovered what the universe is made of. It was one of the most
astonishing discoveries in the history of astronomic research. The problem
was that no one believed her.
You have probably never heard of British-born Cecilia H. Payne (later
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin), who in 1923 came to the United States to study
stellar spectra at the Harvard College Observatory. In a remarkably short
time, Payne managed to quantify and classify the stellar spectra in the
plate collection at the Observatory, arriving at the startling conclusion
that stars are "amazingly uniform" in their composition, and that hydrogen
is millions of times more abundant than any other element in the universe.
Her doctoral dissertation, Stellar Atmospheres (1925), demonstrated her
theory concerning the chemical composition of stars and earned her the first
doctoral degree ever offered to either man or woman by Harvard's astronomy
department. A few years later, Otto Struve, an eminent astronomer, called it
"the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written" (p. 20).*
But in 1925, other scholars in the field were less impressed--or,
perhaps, less courageous. Most astronomers at the time believed that
stars are made of heavy elements. When her manuscript was presented to Henry
Norris Russell, the leading contemporary astronomer dealing with stellar
spectra, he wrote that her ideas concerning hydrogen's prevalence were
"impossible" (p. 19). The director of Harvard's Observatory, Harlow Shapley,
trusted Russell and convinced Payne to dilute her conclusion substantially.
By the end of these machinations, Payne, despite the data in her thesis,
asserted in writing that the abundance of hydrogen that she had detected was
"almost certainly not real" (p. 20). Later, the same scholars who had led
her to weaken her thesis steered her away from continuing her work on the
Observatory's spectra, the area where she had demonstrated both promise and
brilliance. At the Observatory she was pitted against one of Russell's
students, thereby impeding the progress of both, and her research was
redirected toward photometry and variable stars, which she studied for the
rest of her career. Four years later, Russell published a paper of his own
announcing that the sun is made mostly of hydrogen.
Payne-Gaposchkin eventually became Harvard's first female tenured professor
and later the first female department chair, but her "promotion" did not
come until 1956, when a new observatory director finally conceded that she
deserved the position and a new university president finally permitted it.
She had been passed over for positions several times; once, when the
Observatory sought to fill a professorship, Shapley, unable to acknowledge
the fact that one was standing in front of him, said to her, "What this
Observatory needs is a spectroscopist" (p. 223). But by then, at Russell's
suggestion, she had already been "pushed against my will into photometry"
Since her death in 1979, the woman who discovered what the universe is made
of has not so much as received a memorial plaque. Her newspaper obituaries
do not mention her greatest discovery. Even today, when it has become
fashionable for historians to highlight the accomplishments of great female
scientists, other astronomers are given precedence, or her name is listed as
merely one of many. But there is no need to visit an Astronomy Hall of Fame
to see how faint the memory of Payne-Gaposchkin has become. A glance at any
elementary physical science textbook will do the trick. Every high school
student knows that Isaac Newton discovered gravity, that Charles Darwin
discovered evolution, and that Albert Einstein discovered the relativity of
time. But when it comes to the composition of our universe, the textbooks
simply say that the most abundant atom in the universe is hydrogen. And no
one ever wonders how we know.
I believe that Payne-Gaposchkin's work on stellar spectra was stopped in its
tracks by three factors that had absolutely nothing to do with astronomy:
She was a woman, she was young, and she was outstanding. The first and
second of these factors led other people to underestimate her, either by
mistaking her genius for foolishness or by assuming (and perhaps even
hoping) that she could not possibly be capable of doing what she did. The
third, the brilliance that placed her research beyond the understanding of
those who were supposedly older and wiser, ultimately made her underestimate
herself--a fact that she acknowledged later in life. Long after the 1920s,
when Otto Struve began working on a history of astrophysics, he offered to
include her prior discovery of a particular effect in stellar spectra. But
Payne-Gaposchkin was too angry with herself to accept. "I was to blame for
not having pressed my point," she insisted. "I had given into authority when
I believed I was right. That is another example of How Not To Do Research"
(p. 169). Her marriage to astronomer Sergei Gaposchkin seems to have made
her even more vulnerable. His work was in variable stars, and
Payne-Gaposchkin soon found herself devoting almost all of her research to
that field. This, in addition to the challenge of raising their two
children, caused her to abandon spectroscopy altogether. In her
autobiography, however, she rarely expresses frustration with anyone other
But more than underestimation and disbelief were working against her. If
Payne had merely been misunderstood, her colleagues would have surely
encouraged her to continue working on stellar spectra once they realized
that she was right. But they did not. Instead, even after the importance of
her work had become obvious, Payne was still cajoled into abandoning her
specialty. I do not believe that this stemmed from scientific concerns about
the merit of her research, but from something simpler and more universal, an
emotion that every scientist and nonscientist can understand.
Jealousy, when dressed in the guise of science, becomes much more
destructive than usual, for it can curtail our knowledge of the world. We
will probably never be able to confirm why Russell and Shaply made the
decisions that they made. Yet it is clear that discrimination as well as
personal bitterness precluded scientific progress at many levels throughout
Payne-Gaposchkin's career. In Payne's case, one might argue that the public
was lucky. Her revelation is ours, even if we do not know her name. But what
of the discoveries that might have been made if she had continued working on
stellar spectra for another 20 years? Can we even begin to estimate the
magnitude of the loss?
Like most people, I have almost no scientific training. What I know about
scientific research comes from newspapers, magazines, television programs,
and a few ill-remembered high school chemistry classes. But like most
people, I have been taught to see science as an entirely pure and objective
pursuit of knowledge, embarked upon for the benefit of people like me. This
assumption may be ridiculous. Yet as knowledge expands beyond my grasp, it
is an assumption that I have to make in order to avoid living in a state of
perpetual and paralyzing doubt.
So if I read in the newspaper that a fat-substitute is safe for consumption,
I do not question it. If a television program tells me that no one will ever
find a cure for a particular disease, I believe it. If my college textbook
explains to me that the universe is made of hydrogen, but does not tell me
who discovered it, I trust that this fact was so obvious that it did not
even need to be discovered. Along with millions of others, I have placed my
faith in scientists--not because I am dull-witted, but because their pursuit
is reputed to be noble and disinterested, unmarred by the jealousies and
desires that motivate most of us. Perhaps I am na?ve, but then so are many
others. If scientists let us down, we will not know it.
The greatest loss to scientific research does not come from anything
inherent in science, but rather from something inherent in society: our love
of stars, particularly metaphoric ones. As students, we learn to associate
the phenomena of our world with the names of the people who discovered them,
never with their personalities, or with their networks of teachers and
fellow researchers, or with their bibliographies of works upon which they
built their own. On the elementary level, evolution is not taught as
evolution, but as Darwinian evolution. We do not study relativity, but
Einstein's theory of relativity. Our textbooks supply us with Planck's
constant, Avogadro's number, and Newton's laws. Scarcely a theorem exists
without someone's name attached to it, regardless of how many people may
have contributed to it.
After spending so many years listening to the great geniuses' names repeated
again and again, a young student entering the sciences might understandably
believe that the supreme goal of the scientist is not to reach for the
stars, but rather to become one. After all, among the constellations of
scientific giants, do we ever see the light of their instructors, or their
colleagues, or those who were their inspirations? Isaac Newton once said of
himself, "If I have seen further than other men, it is because I have stood
upon the shoulders of giants." But what happens when no one is content to
offer his shoulders?
I am not in a position to judge how typical or unusual Payne-Gaposchkin's
experience might be in the research of today. Nevertheless, I urge
scientists to aspire to that which the rest of us already assume is taking
place: to ensure that research is not just a solitary effort geared toward
individual reward, but a joint effort to push back the boundaries of
knowledge. That should be the highest and most impassioned goal. As the
sciences become more specialized, "stardom" will become more elusive.
Scientists will then be faced with a choice: to become more competitive in
their quest for glory or to become more sincere in their quest for truth.
The most crucial contributions to knowledge do not only come from those who
make revolutionary revelations, but also from those who know how to
appreciate and nurture the talents of others.
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin writes in her autobiography that she hopes to be
remembered for what she considers her greatest discovery: "I have come to
know that a problem does not belong to me, or to my team, or to my
Observatory, or to my country; it belongs to the world" (p. 162). The
shoulders of that discovery are the only ones strong enough to support us.
The author is at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.
*All quotations are from Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin:
An Autobiography and Other Writings, K. Haramundanis, Ed. (Cambridge Univ.
Press, Cambridge, ed. 2, 1986).
Volume 280, Number 5368 Issue of 29 May 1998, pp. 1354 - 1355
(C)1998 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.