What Stars are Made Of: The Life of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin by Donovan Moore - review by John Gribbin

John Gribbin

She Broke the Galactic Ceiling

What Stars are Made Of: The Life of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin


Harvard University Press 320pp £23.95 order from our bookshop

Cecilia Payne (as she then was) made one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science when she was not quite twenty-five years old. In the mid-1920s, she discovered what stars are made of. What she found was so astonishing that at first nobody (literally, not anybody) believed it could be true. The fact that she was a young woman telling her older male colleagues that they were in error did not help. A few years later, some of those older male colleagues found out that she was right, but even then credit for the discovery largely went to them. Proper recognition came slowly and late, but it did eventually come. By the time I studied astronomy, forty years after her breakthrough, at least those in the trade knew the significance of her work.

Donovan Moore’s book is welcome not just because it puts the record straight for a wider audience but also because it is the proverbial good read, setting Payne’s achievements in the context of her times. Indeed, this is more important here than the science, since all you really need to know about that is in the title of the book. Moore doesn’t pretend to be a scientist, and he doesn’t always get what science there is in the book exactly right. He also at times sees England through American spectacles. But none of this matters a jot. It is the story that counts here.

And what a story! Born in 1900 to respectable middle-class parents in Wendover, Payne ‘ought’ to have learned the feminine arts, got married and raised a family. But she rebelled, and we find her as a child asking why Jesus couldn’t have been a woman and in her early teens

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