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An Astronomical Theft: How Cecilia Payne’s Findings Were Lost and Found

Sometimes, in the course of studying history, obscured facts and downright untruths are brought to light through letters of note. This was certainly the case when a letter from the man credited for discovering that hydrogen is the building block of the universe, Norris Russell.

Who Was Henry Norris Russell?

Henry Norris Russell was an American astronomer whose original views of the makeup of the universe aligned with the prevailing beliefs of his time in 1925. That belief was that both the sun, which is a star, and the earth, a planet, shared the same composition. Of course, scientists now know that this is not true. But what the public did not know until certain letters of note recently came to light, is that it was a PhD student, and not Henry Norris Russell, who first discovered the abundance of hydrogen in the universe.

Cecelia Payne’s  Education

Born in 1900, Cecelia Payne demonstrated high intelligence even as a child. Aware of her chid’s hunger for knowledge, her mother enrolled her in St. Paul’s School for Girls. Her mother’s hunch was right, and Cecelia eventually found herself with a scholarship, attending the University of Cambridge. There, she was frequently made fun of by her physics teacher and fellow classmates, simply because she was the only female in the class.

Swallowing her humiliation, Payne continued working hard, and shortly found a mentor who encouraged Payne in her astronomy studies. Astrophysicist Arthur Eddington included Payne in his stellar structures research, but also warned her of the obstacles she would face as a woman in the male-dominated astronomy field in England at the time.

Cecelia Payne met the director of the Harvard College Observatory, who paid her a nominal amount to be his research fellow. At the age of 23, Payne relocated to the United States, where she began work on her PhD thesis at Harvard University. It is this thesis that was the subject of one of the letters of note written by Norris Russell.

Cecelia Payne’s Thesis

Cecelia Paynes earned her PhD in astronomy just two years later.  She was not only the first woman to earn a PhD from Harvard, but the first person to do so. Her thesis was titled, “ Stellar Atmospheres.”  In it, Payne had used quantum mechanics, a cutting edge theory in her day, to show that the temperature of stars was what determined their spectra, and that the number of chemical elements were consistent, give or take, throughout the universe.

The most surprising element of her thesis was that Payne had discovered that hydrogen was the most dominant element in stars, and in the universe. Today, it is generally known that our galaxy is made up of 73% hydrogen and 25% helium. The rest of the elements only make up 2%.

But in Cecelia Payne’s day, her conclusion went against the prevailing belief. The fact that she went against the scientific community was bad enough. What really ticked people off was that it came from a woman.

Letters of Note From Henry Norris Russell

Mr Russell, a 3rd party examiner and director of the Princeton University, had a lot to say about Ms. Payne’s thesis. He started out by saying that some of what she put forward had some “striking results” that were “remarkably consistent.” Notably, he said that “It is clearly impossible that hydrogen should be a million times more abundant than the metals.” Payne was so destroyed by the response, that she backpedaled, saying that perhaps he was right.

Yet, only four years later, Russell published his own paper, with the same conclusions as Payne. While he cited Payne’s work, he still took credit for the discovery, and his name is still associated with it.