Today is September 3 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you lose impatience with the ordinary?” Many people who have learned to navigate the chaos of life have lost patience with the ordinary aspects of everyday life such as meals, friendships, and sleep. To lose impatience with the ordinary allows one to focus, to drown out the noise, and to reach the level of obsession required to make one dream after another a reality. British born American astronomer Cecilia Helena Payne was one such person.
Cecilia Helena Payne was born in Wendover, England in 1900 and at 18 years of age, while attending St. Paul's Girls' School met Gustav Holst who urged her to pursue a career in music. She instead, preferred to focus on science and the following year won a scholarship that paid all her expenses at Newnham College, Cambridge University, where she initially read botany, physics, and chemistry but dropped botany after her first year. During physics lectures at the University of Cambridge, she, like all women, had to sit at the front, forced to parade past male students stomping in time with her steps.
Her interest in astronomy began after she attended a lecture by Arthur Eddington on his 1919 expedition to the island of Principe in the Gulf of Guinea off the west coast of Africa to observe and photograph the stars near a solar eclipse as a test of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity. She said of the lecture: “The result was a complete transformation of my world picture. My world had been so shaken that I experienced something very like a nervous breakdown.” She completed her studies but was not awarded a degree because of her sex; Cambridge did not grant degrees to women until 1948.
Upon completing her studies at Cambridge, Payne realized her only career option in the U.K. was to become a teacher, so she looked for grants that would enable her to move to the United States. After being introduced to Harlow Shapley, the Director of the Harvard College Observatory, where he had just established a graduate program in astronomy, she left England in 1923. This was made possible by a fellowship to encourage women to study at the observatory.
Her big breakthrough came not long after finding work at Harvard College Observatory in 1923. She had taken it upon herself to analyze the institution’s library of stellar spectra: starlight broken into its component colors, revealing elements in the stars based on which wavelengths of light were missing. No one had yet combed through the spectra to take a census of the atoms so Payne harnessed her keen observational skills, sharp mathematical mind, and rigorous physics training to use the new field of quantum physics to identify dozens of element signatures in thousands of spectra.
After roughly two years of nearly unbroken, tedious, and grueling focus, she overturned one of the prevailing thoughts of the day: that stars were chemically similar to Earth. Instead, hydrogen appeared to be a million times as abundant as expected, and helium a thousand times so. At the time, Payne’s findings were largely dismissed as spurious. It wasn’t until the American astronomer Henry Norris Russell came to the same conclusion years later that minds started to change.
Her 1925 thesis, entitled Stellar Atmospheres, was famously described by astronomer Otto Struve a few years after Payne completed her doctorate as “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy.” By calculating the abundance of chemical elements from stellar spectra, her work began a revolution in astrophysics.
Shapley liked to say that no one could earn a PhD unless he had suffered in the process. As she neared the end of her doctoral project on stellar spectra, Payne wrote, “There followed months, almost a year as I remember, of utter bewilderment. Often, I was in a state of exhaustion and despair, working all day and late into the night.”
On completing her doctorate, after considering other opportunities, she decided to stay on at Harvard. At the time, advancement to professor was denied to women at Harvard, so she spent years in lesser, low-paid duties. She even taught at Harvard for nearly two decades before being listed in the course catalog. She published several books, including The Stars of High Luminosity, 1930; Variable Stars, 1938; and Variable Stars and Galactic Structure, 1954.
Finally, in 1956, Payne achieved two Harvard firsts: she became the first female professor, and the first woman to become department chair.
So how did Payne navigate the chaos of…
Rejecting the suggestion she study music in school?
Dealing with the chauvinistic attitudes towards women in science at the time?
Completing her Cambridge studies without receiving her degree since the institution did not grant women diplomas?
Moving to a new country, the United States, to study at Harvard?
Figuring out the chemical makeup of the stars an in so doing launch a scientific revolution?
Dealing with the grueling nature of completing her Ph.D. dissertation?
Putting up with low level jobs at Harvard since women were prohibited from becoming a professor?
Waiting for decades to receive her rightful status as Professor and Chair at Harvard?
According to her biographer Donovan Moore, Payne accomplished all of this, and so much more, by relying upon “an impatience with the ordinary — with sleep, meals, even friendships and family — that had driven her as far back as she could remember.”
After her death in 1979, other scientists would go on to remember Payne as “the most eminent woman astronomer of all time.” During a time when science was largely a men’s club, she had figured out the chemical makeup of the stars. It’s a riveting tale of a woman who knocked down every wall put before her to get the answers she desired about the cosmos. As for Payne, while she was aware of these barriers, she did not, however, see herself as a feminist pioneer. She was drawn to the stars, and the stars were blind to gender. She did not consider herself a woman astronomer. She was an astronomer.
Payne once wrote: “Young people, especially young women, often ask me for advice. Here it is, valeat quantum. Do not undertake a scientific career in quest of fame or money. There are easier and better ways to reach them. Undertake it only if nothing else will satisfy you; for nothing else is probably what you will receive. Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. And if you achieve that reward you will ask no other.”
Payne’s spectacular life and career recalls the words of another pioneering woman, American activist Glora Steinem who said: “The art of life isn’t controlling what happens, which is impossible; it’s using what happens.” Payne used whatever happened to her to propel her forward and, when coupled with her ‘inpatience with the ordinary,’ knocked down every wall she encountered to find the answers she so desired about the cosmos.