Chicken Heroes: Celia Payne

Cecilia Payne was the first person to earn a PhD in astronomy. A Russian-American astronomer, Otto Strauve  said hers was “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy.”

Celia Payne

Her mother refused to pay for her higher education, so she worked hard and won a scholarship to Cambridge University in England. But when she finished her studies the university wouldn’t give her a degree. Why? Because she was a woman! In fact, Cambridge University only started giving degrees to women in 1948. 

What did she do?

Cecilia Payne discovered what the universe is made of. She discovered what the sun is made of too. Henry Norris Russell, another astronomer, is the name people remember as the person who discovered that the sun’s composition is different from the Earth’s. But this was four years later than Payne! He actually told her not to publish.

Celia Payne is why we know about variable stars, whose brightness changes when seen from earth.

She became a full professor at Harvard- another first- and is inspiring generations of women to take up science.

Cecilia Payne is our Chicken Hero!

“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. […]

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.”

– Professor Jeremy Knowles discussing the complete lack of recognition Cecilia Payne gets, even today, for her revolutionary discovery. 


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