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The Story of the Stars: This Woman Discovered Their Composition

The Story of the Stars: This Woman Discovered Their Composition

In 1925, Cecilia Payne, a graduate student at Cambridge studying astronomy, wrote her Ph.D. thesis addressing the composition of the stars.

It was difficult for women to advance in British academics, therefore Payne moved to the United States, where she became a graduate fellow at Harvard College Observatory.

As time passed, the 25 year old was able to decode the stellar spectra and determine chemical components of stars. reports that Payne found that stars were almost entirely comprised of hydrogen and helium, with only 2 percent of their mass coming from other, heavier elements.

Payne's findings were different from what scientists had previously believed. Scientists at the time believed that the composition of the Earth and stars were similar, but Payne's findings proved otherwise.

The graduate fellow showed her findings to her supervisor Harlow Shapley. Shapley shared her findings with a colleague at Princeton University who told him that the results were impossible.

According to a report from, Payne in added a line to her thesis that read that her findings were “almost certainly not real,” just in case the findings were wrong.

Payne's findings were very real, and her colleagues and the rest of the world eventually recognized her achievement. But it took time for Payne to advance in her career.

In 1956, Payne was made a full professor — the first female at Harvard to receive that title. She was also named chair of the Astronomy Department.

In 1976, she was awarded the Henry Norris Russell Prize, a lectureship chosen annually on the basis of a lifetime of eminence in astronomical research, by the American Astronomical Society in 1976.

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Photo Credit: © PF-(bygone1) / Alamy