Sketches on Atheism

The woman who stabbed the gods in the eye

Cecilia Payne

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.


47 thoughts on “The woman who stabbed the gods in the eye

  1. Superbly written as always. However, if i’m not mistaken; The Big Bang model of the Universe didn’t come about until 1929 when Edwin Hubble first deduced that the stars were moving away from us proportionally to their distance. The Steady State Theory of the Universe was the predominant one at the time (or eternal universe). I think what you meant to say “existed as fixed [external] quantities.”? Forgive my insolence 🙂


  2. Very interestring article indeed. It is really sad to know that humans have supressed women because of their sex. Try to imagine if this wasn’t the case, and how many scientific discoveries could have been found because of giving the opportunity to the other half of humanity to contribute to the human well being. Our society could have at least 300 years ahead of advanced technology and who know how would that world be?


    • Agreed. Cambridge (where Payne studied) didn’t confer degrees on woman until 1948. She had to move to the States so she could just get a job teaching. Fortunately for us all she got noticed.


    • Far too few have, and that’s a shortcoming we should try to rectify. In all reality, far too people know of any of the giants of cosmology, men and women. Another is Margaret Burbidge: she was the first to actually “prove” that the elements were in fact forged inside stars.


  3. Wonderful! Being an armchair amatuer astronomer I had a special liking for astrophysics and had never heard of Cecilia Payne. All of our sciences are rife with similar lessons in gender bias and every school child should hear at least one of these stories for each of the sciences they study as an object lesson that we are all created equally, not equally gifted but with equal opportunity, and anyone standing in the way of that is violating a fundamental democratic principle.


  4. What a cracking read. It is through such writing that an ‘unknown’ becomes a household name.
    Cecilia Payne.
    I am pretty ignorant of this sort of stuff, but has she ever been properly recognized for her work? Nobel Prize or something similar?


    • Nope. She apparently won the Annie J. Cannon Award in Astronomy (1934), Rittenhouse Medal (1961), Award of Merit from Radcliffe College (1952), Henry Norris Russell Prize (1976). I only “discovered” her last year researching something else. It was always in my head to write something, and you’re right, such stories should be promoted more. I’m a HUGE fan of the Vedic grammarian, Yaska, but no one has ever heard of him…. and yet the system and laws of language we’re using here today was established by him.


  5. Great post. Another female scientist that is often overlooked is Rosalind Franklin and her immense contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA.


  6. If the better half of the human race had not been and were not still being actively oppressed by the violent, war mongering, might-makes-right male dominated hierarchies of human history, I venture the world would today be a place of Peace and sustainable prosperity rather than the war and exploitation ravaged victim it is.


      • In our town squares, I don’t remember having seen any lady but if there is one person who deserves one is the late Prof Wangari Mathai. She was committed to the greenbelt movement and good governance and won a Nobel for the hard work.


      • Town squares…interesting! In the 17th (or 16th) century, Giordano Bruno postulated that the stars in the night’s sky were suns like our own, each with a plurality of worlds like our own; then along with that belief (or might we say fact),coupled with his intolerance for stupidity, he was later burned at the stake. Now he has a statue in Campo Di Fiori, Rome. Doesn’t seem right, but it’s better than nothing. But it is a bad-ass statue! I always stop for a moment when I pass — might be the only religious characteristic I possess, though I loath to express it that way.


      • I’ve seen that statue! At the time (i was a kid) I was reading Lord of the Rings (all three books) and it reminded me of a Ranger. You’re a lucky SOB to be based in Rome, but its better than good to know you actually appreciate it. Loving the art though isn’t religious, Fourat. Back in SP i always called into Sao Bento. It’s a drop dead gorgeous church complete with monks singing Gregorian chants on Thursday mornings.


      • Have you ever read ‘Ideas and Opinions’? If you have not, you owe it to yourself to read the great essays/letters of Einstein. Especially his views on religion and science. To describe it in one word; mesmerizing!


    • Quite the mind. I’d LOVE to have been a fly on the wall listening to her at Cambridge, studying (evidently brilliant), yet unable to actually be conferred a degree. A few choice words i think were uttered. Perhaps this is another reason why Eddington took such an interest in her. He was gay, but he took that secret to the grave. There’s no other way to describe prejudice and discrimination other than, sad.


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