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The Shoulders of Giants

Dara Horn

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"

(p. 223).

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

than herself.

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.