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For the Love of Stars

Adapted from Stories in Faith by Gail Forsyth-Vail, a Tapestry of Faith Toolkit book (Boston: UUA, 2007). Used with permission.

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 wanted to grow up to become an astronomer who studied the stars. Throughout her whole life, she studied and observed the stars, asking, "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 discover, each bit of new understanding about the wonders of the far-off sky.

When Cecilia was a small child in England, 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 remember small details. By age twelve, she had learned to measure things and to do math problems easily. 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 exercise strengthened her resolve to be a scientist.

In 1912, when Cecilia was a teenager, there was very little education available for a young woman who wanted to be a scientist. She spent hours in a makeshift 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 gravity.

In 1919, Cecilia entered college to study botany, or plants. This was one of the fields of science permitted for women. She went through her courses, but also attended lectures in physics, where she found "pure delight." Each new bit of knowledge about physics and astronomy transformed her. Leaving botany behind, she persuaded the college to allow her to take a degree in physics: astronomy is a branch of physics.

After finishing her degree, Cecilia Payne left for the United States, where she would study as an astronomer at Harvard University. As an astronomer, she figured out that stars are primarily made of hydrogen. In today's world of satellites and computers, we know this to be true, but it was an extraordinary statement at that time. How can you possibly know what a makes a star from so far away? Because of this discovery, Cecilia was the first person, male or female, awarded a Ph.D. in astronomy.

Cecilia choice to be an astronomer was not popular, or appreciated, because she was a woman. People kept her from advancing in her carrier or just flat out didn't believe her. Nevertheless, she was right. And through it all, she held on to her love for the scientific quest, and her love for the stars.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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