In past posts I’ve filled town squares across the planet with effigies to Yāska, Democritus, Leucippus and the 300 kilogram piece of god-killing kickass named Stardust. No question each deserves a spot, but standing over them all should be a statue, a solid gold one, to this magnificent woman, Cecilia Payne, who’s 1925 work on stellar interiors was described by the famed astronomer and author of over 900 scientific papers, Otto Struve, as “undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy.” And he was right. It’s not every day, after all, that a graduate student (who never actually “graduated” because of her sex) peels open a star for the first time, writes the first pages in a new book on the origin of the elements, and quietly runs a piping hot iron through the eye of every creator god ever dreamed up.
The pre-Payne world (a world where creationists still had a toe in the door) sounds absurd to us, and for very good reason. Whilst attending St. Pauls Girl’s School in west London Payne, just like everyone else, learnt that the sun was a gigantic smouldering coal ball; a tremendous chemical reaction cooking away in space like some burning earth, so to speak, and no older than 20 million years. That was the going theory and no one had the slightest reason to doubt it. That was until radiometric dating of the earth proved the math of a space borne bonfire just didn’t work. Our star had to be older than any camp fire could ever possibly burn for, even one the size of the sun, and that meant just one thing: stars had to have a different, longer lasting, perhaps more exotic fuel source. Hydrogen was proposed by the brilliant Sir Arthur Eddington in 1920, and in 1923 his theory was proved possible by the equally brilliant Hans Bethe who worked out the basic nuclear processes by which hydrogen is fused into helium inside stellar masses. It would take however the work of Eddington’s doctoral student, the frighteningly superb Cecilia Payne (then at Radcliffe College, Harvard), whose 1925 paper, Stellar Atmospheres, A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars not only verified the theory but also shattered the going notion that all the elements in the universe existed as fixed quantities, origins unknown. By studying the ionization levels inside stars Payne proved that differences in a stars spectral output (its observable colours) were the result of varying temperatures and pressures, not a differing abundance of particular elements… and with that Cecilia Payne gifted our species with the first sense that all heavier-than-hydrogen elements were forged inside supermassive stars, and supermassive stars alone. Payne’s work demonstrated that stars were perhaps elemental factories; parental foundries where the oxygen in our lungs, the iron in our blood and the calcium in our teeth were birthed in outrageous conditions and then dispersed for gravity to rearrange. The chemistry set of the universe, of stars and planets and life, was not conferred by some benevolent benefactor as religious fantasy would have us believe. It was instead, as the simply magnificent Margaret Burbidge would discover in 1957, evolving in an on-going experiment that had begun 400 million years after the big bang… a curtain first teased open by Cecilia Payne who introduced us to the first notions of who our true parents and grandparents were: long dead stars.