For the Love of Stars
Once there was a little girl named Cecilia who fell in love with the universe. She felt her heart leap with joy every time she learned something new about the world around her. She would grow up to become a scientist, an astronomer who studied the stars. Throughout her whole life, she studied and observed the stars, working with other scientists and on her own. What are stars made of? How are they born? Do they die? And how do we know? Throughout her whole life, her heart sang with each discovery, each bit of new understanding about the wonders of the far-off sky.
When Cecilia was a small child in England, still being pushed in a pram, which is an old-fashioned stroller, she saw a meteorite blaze across the sky. Her mother taught her a small rhyme so she could remember what it was:
"As we were walking home that night
We saw a shining meteorite."
She later told a friend that from that moment, she knew she would grow up to be an astronomer. She learned the names of all the constellations in the sky, picking out the Big Dipper, Orion's Belt, and others. She was naturally very observant and precise, able to pick out and remember small details. By age twelve, she had learned to measure things and to do math problems very precisely. At her school, they had an interesting way of increasing the students' powers of observation. Once a week, students were required to find with their eyes (not touching) three little brass tacks scattered somewhere in the school garden. For Cecilia, always an observer, this education just strengthened her resolve to be a scientist.
In 1912, when Cecilia was a teenager, there was very little help available for a young woman who wanted to be a scientist. Filled with joy and wonder, she studied the chemical elements that made up the world and learned to classify and identify plants of all kinds. She spent hours in a laboratory, which she called her chapel, where she conducted "a little worship service of her own," in awe before the magnificence of the natural world. Persistent, she found people who would teach her science at school, and she pored over her family's home library until she found two lonely science books to study: one about plants and the other containing Sir Isaac Newton's observations about planets and his law of gravity.
In 1919 Cecilia entered college to study botany, because the study of plants was an acceptable scientific study for a woman in those days. She went through her courses in botany, but also attended lectures in physics, where she found "pure delight." She was transformed by each new bit of knowledge about physics and astronomy. When she realized at one lecture that all motion is relative, she did not sleep for three nights. Leaving botany behind, she persuaded the college to allow her to take a degree in physics, because the astronomy was considered part of physics.
After finishing her degree, Cecilia Payne left for the United States, where she would study as an astronomer at Harvard University. She spent her first two years there figuring out what stars are made of, and concluded in 1925 that most stars are primarily hydrogen. In today's world of satellites and computers, we know this to be true, but it was an extraordinary statement at that time. No one believed her. Nonetheless, when she presented those conclusions, she was the first person ever, male of female, to be granted a Ph.D. in astronomy.
Cecilia had no small number of struggles as an astronomer because she was a woman. It took until 1956—after twenty-three years of working—for her to be named a professor. Even so, she was the first woman ever to be named a full professor at Harvard. When she was thirty-four, she arranged for the rescue of Russian astronomer Sergei Gaposchkin, who had been exiled from his own country. She later married him and they did research together. They raised three children, who all went to the Sunday School at First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Lexington, Massachusetts. Through it all, she held on to her love for the scientific quest—and for the stars.
Near the end of her life, Cecilia wrote that where other women were not allowed to be in "direct touch with the fountain-head, whether you call it God or the Universe," she had been—always. Her love for the universe and for the wonder of it all lasted her entire life.