The history of science is replete with women getting little notice for their groundbreaking discoveries. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, a tireless innovator who correctly theorized the substance of stars, was one of them.
It was not easy being a woman of ambition in early twentieth-century England, much less one who wished to be a scientist. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin overcame prodigious obstacles to become a woman of many firsts: the first to receive a PhD in astronomy from Radcliffe College, the first promoted to full professor at Harvard, the first to head a department there. And, in what has been called "the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy", she was the first to describe what stars are made of.
Payne-Gaposchkin lived in a society that did not know what to make of a determined schoolgirl who wanted to know everything. She was derided in college and refused a degree. As a graduate student, she faced formidable skepticism. Revolutionary ideas rarely enjoy instantaneous acceptance, but the learned men of the astronomical community found hers especially hard to take seriously. Though welcomed at the Harvard College Observatory, she worked for years without recognition or status. Still, she accomplished what every scientist yearns for: discovery. She revealed the atomic composition of stars – only to be told that her conclusions were wrong by the very man who would later show her to be correct.
In What Stars Are Made Of, Donovan Moore brings this remarkable woman to life through extensive archival research, family interviews, and photographs. Moore retraces Payne-Gaposchkin's steps with visits to cramped observatories and nighttime bicycle rides through the streets of Cambridge, England. The result is a story of devotion and tenacity that speaks powerfully to our own time.
Foreword [Jocelyn Bell Burnell]
I. Beginning: Wendover and London, 1900–1919
II. Preparing: Cambridge, 1919–1923
III. Discovery: Harvard, 1923–1979
Donovan Moore has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, including the Boston Globe and Rolling Stone, and has worked as a television reporter and producer.
"A fine biography of perhaps the greatest astronomer of the past century that no one has heard of [...] Readers will gnash their teeth as Moore recounts the discrimination she endured [...] An outstanding life of an impressive scientist."
– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin's success was not achieved by chance. She triumphed by facing down every obstacle, by never giving up, by being, as she says, 'doggedly persistent.' Donovan Moore brings Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin to the front of history in a way that inspires us, educates us, and makes us want to be better. Champions adapt, and Cecilia was a champion."
– Billie Jean King, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and winner of the "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match
"What Stars Are Made Of celebrates the scientist responsible for discovering the composition of stars. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin dedicated her life to the pursuit of science when very few women were given the chance. Throughout her long career, she never stopped adapting her methods and embracing new ideas, fueled by a passion to understand the universe and our place in it."
– Scott Kelly, retired U.S. Navy Captain, former NASA astronaut, and author of Endurance
"Through vivid and eloquent prose, this book applauds the great astronomer who discovered what stars themselves are made of. Moore brings the inspirational story of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin to center stage, where it belongs."
– Jo Dunkley, author of Our Universe: An Astronomer's Guide
"I devoured this book in a single weekend. Donovan Moore artfully portrays the lack of recognition for Payne-Gaposchkin's paradigm-changing discoveries and embarks, as resolutely as Cecilia herself, to set the record straight."
– Jessie Christiansen, NASA Exoplanet Science Institute
"What Stars Are Made Of provides both an accessible introduction to and an expansive context for the life and work of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, one of the most brilliant astrophysicists of the twentieth century. The sharing of stories like Payne-Gaposchkin's will reshape the future of science so that all aspiring scientists may reach their full potential as we continue to explore the universe."
– Emily Rice, City University of New York and the American Museum of Natural History
"An astronomy icon is finally brought to life in this captivating and inspiring must-read. Donovan Moore digs deep to reveal a scientist far ahead of her time."
– Sara Seager, Massachusetts Institute of Technology