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Cecilia Payne and the Composition of the Stars – Part of the Cosmic Horizons Curriculum Collection.

What are the stars made of?

The answer to this fundamental question of astrophysics was discovered in 1925 by Cecilia Payne and explained in her Ph.D. thesis. Payne showed how to decode the complicated spectra of starlight in order to learn the relative amounts of the chemical elements in the stars. In 1960 the distinguished astronomer Otto Struve referred to this work as “the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy.”

Cecilia Payne (1900–1979) was born in Wendover, England. After entering Cambridge University she soon knew she wanted to study a science, but was not sure which one. She then chanced to hear the astronomer Arthur Eddington give a public lecture on his recent expedition to observe the 1919 solar eclipse, an observation that proved Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. She later recalled her exhilaration: “The result was a complete transformation of my world picture. When I returned to my room I found that I could write down the lecture word for word.” She realized that physics was for her.

Photo credit: Ross Henderson


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