Cecilia and Sergei: American Astronomers

Many great minds and personalities have graced this Observatory, but few so illustrious as those of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and her husband Sergei. Together, and separately, they made great impacts on how astronomers see the universe. Cecilia began questioning the make-up of the stars, finding in her graduate research that hydrogen and helium are massively more abundant than iron in the universe. Meanwhile, Sergei counted “over 3 million” stars in the Magellanic clouds, establishing their qualities, distances, and motions. But by far their most important contribution was instilling a distinct enthusiasm into the field, which extended far into the next generation.

Cecilia and Sergei could hardly have come from more different backgrounds, but they shared two important traits: a love for astronomy, and an inability to pursue it under their initial circumstances. Their desire to research motivated them out of stifling intellectual atmospheres and brought them to Harvard, where they helped build a more amenable institutional and social climate, although it often fell short of their ideals. Still, thankful for their opportunities, they became vocal patriots and upheld a strong social sense that reflected their love for astronomy back onto this ideal space that allowed them to flourish. Even as more than Americans, they saw themselves as part of the global community, as part of humanity, with a shared interest in knowledge and research.

Fig. 1: Sergei and Cecilia at a meeting for the American Astronomical Society, held in Mexico City, 1979. Scanned at the American Institute of Physics, Emilio Segre Visual Archives, reproduced with permission.

Cecilia Payne was born into a moderately wealthy family that lived in the English countryside. The only girl with two brothers, Cecilia often found herself either exploring with them or alone in nature. In both cases, she was equally curious about her surroundings. She was tutored alongside her brothers, at an early age, in poetry, music, math, but not much science. Even when Cecilia went away to a girl’s boarding school, she was unsatisfied both with the available science labs and antiquated equipment, and also the inadequate staff to teach her about it all.

Fig 2: The Dyer’s Hand (Cecilia’s autobiography).

So she applied to enter Newnham College, Cambridge in 1919, and found herself in a dream world. She was now working in the same laboratories as, and sometimes under the tutelage of great names in physics and atomic science: Ernest Rutherford, J.J. Thompson, Niels Bohr, and Arthur Eddington, whom she considered “the greatest intellect [she] ever had the privilege to meet” (The Dyer’s Hand, 236). She also found a certain degree of acceptance among the students active in politics: “we women, of course, had no votes, but that did not prevent us from conducting spirited debates…We declared almost unanimously for labor” (The Dyer’s Hand, 112). The student body was less welcoming in other ways. As one of the few women in the sciences at the college, she repeatedly faced discredit and harassment from her peers, which was never admonished by her professors. The school failed to provide a supportive structure: in one class, an advanced physics course taught by Rutherford, she was required to sit in the front row (alone). Rutherford would often single her out, much to the chagrin of the boys in class.

In search of better opportunities to study astronomy at high university levels, she looked towards Cambridge, MA, and a graduate research position at the Harvard College Observatory. At the end of her degree at Newnham, she met the current Observatory director Harlow Shapley, visiting England as a lecturer. Ready to move forward on her career path, she asked Shapley if he should like a new and eager research assistant in America. Shapley responded that he would be delighted: “When Miss Cannon retires, you can succeed her!”

This answer presages the types of gender discrimination Cecilia would continue to face. While it was rarely as direct or obstructionary as in England, the climate in America still resisted her entry into the professional sciences. Shapely gave her an office in the same building as the Glass Plate collection and the Computer offices, but where no other (male) research astronomers worked. She found difficulty advancing in her professional life: Shapely provided insufficient wages (for projects which he measured in “girl hours”), and, after almost 30 years of dedicated work, Harvard still expressed reticence to recognize Cecilia’s work with a dignified title and position. In her autobiography, Cecilia laments that, in her youthful vigor, she had been “over optimistic” about America’s freedoms and equalities. But even in the face of this resistance, she remained adamant that no quality could prevent her from working with what she loved. On a questionnaire for the Radcliffe Alumni Association, in response to the questions “Can a woman successfully carry on a career and marriage simultaneously? Can she if she has children? What is the most important forward movement in which women can be of service?,” she answers: “??? Same as for men.”

Fig. 3: Stellar Atmospheres (Cecilia’s PhD Thesis).

Perhaps the most frustrating moment in Cecilia’s career came at the end of her graduate research at Harvard, when she was finishing her thesis. Written in a “six week ecstasy,” and later hailed as “the greatest PhD thesis even written in astronomy,” Stellar Atmospheres was published as the first in the series Harvard Observatory Monographs in 1925. It made an observation that hydrogen and helium are much more massively abundant in the universe than previously assumed. This ran contrary to the current paradigm: that all stellar objects were primarily iron at core, like Earth, the Moon, and the other nearby rocky bodies. The lead thinker in this school, Henry Norris Russell, a senior astronomer at Princeton and close colleague of Shapley, resisted her conclusions, encouraging her to be more conservative and cautious about the implications of her observations. In the end, Cecilia published in her thesis that “the outstanding discrepancies between the astrophysical and terrestrial abundances are displayed for hydrogen and helium. The enormous abundance derived for these elements in the stellar atmosphere is almost certainly not real.” (Stellar Atmospheres, 188).

Of course, we know now that it is actually very real, and that her observations pointed towards a truth about the physical universe, that the stars are made of hydrogen and helium gases. In fact, Russell published a paper four years later (Russell 1929) in which he endorsed Cecilia’s observations, and extended the conclusion to the physical principles of the universe. What caused such an about-face? Some attribute it to misogyny and an initial distrust of Cecilia’s work until he could verify it himself; but others consider the dynamics of professional astronomy research at the time. David Devorkin argues that Russell was simply cautioning a young student from making brash jumps, about being skeptical of their methods, data, and about trusting the authorities above. Even after he had confirmed it through his own observation, it was Russell’s long-earned professional clout and central status in North American astronomy that gave him the voice to challenge the current paradigm.

At any rate, Cecilia held complicated feelings about this ordeal. On the one hand, she always believed that science was a collaborative project: she had done nothing notable but “furnish an observational background” to the continuously developing set of theories (The Dyer’s Hand, 160). If it had not been her, someone else would have noticed and the whole world would be just as well off (paraphrased quote from Cecilia in Gingerich 2001). On the other hand, she felt slighted, and a bit bitter. She was never fond of Russell, beyond professional respect. In a letter to a friend, Charlotte Moore Sitterly, she confessed the desire she always had to “challenge him to a reciting competition. I think I could have matched him — in French, German, Latin and Greek poetry, I think I could have beaten him.”

Nevertheless, in spite of all this friction, Cecilia still enjoyed her work in astronomy. She found a close friend and ally in Frances Woodworth Wright, a computer hired at the Observatory in the late 1920’s and early 30’s, and an astronomer who would go on to teach students and sailors the techniques of celestial navigation. Frances made Cecilia quite the explorer. They took a few road trips across the US, ostensibly to visit the western American observatories, but also to experience the whole of the United States. They had initially planned to sleep in a different state every night, but once they realized that would mean driving at the expense of seeing, they slowed down and climbed the mountains

Fig. 4: Cecilia (left) and Frances relaxing on a rock, 1930s. From the collections of Sara Schechner and Ken Launie.

Through all this, Cecilia remained keenly aware of the space and “society that had given [her] the opportunity to live the life and follow the profession that [she] so much desired. … I can truly say: ‘I am happy in the country of my adoption, I work in it and for it’” (The Dyer’s Hand, 131).

Meanwhile, another young child, halfway across the world had dreams of astronomy. Whereas Cecilia came from the English middle-class, Sergei Gaposchkin grew up in the Russian peasantry. Living in a small house on the Crimean coast of the Baltic Sea, Sergei spent his nights fishing and watching the stars, thinking of how he could build his life towards them. This was something his mother found difficult to understand: “What is Astronomy? Is it some kind of fish you have found in the sea? I would like to know the recipe for this kind of fish” (The Divine Scramble, 537).

Fig. 5: Cecilia and Sergei horsing around, 1930s. From the collections of Sara Schechner and Ken Launie.

His youth was interrupted by the slew of war, revolutions, counter-revolutions, and corruption that defined eastern Europe in the 1910s and 1920s. He was thrown in between the Red Army, the White Army, the working class forces in Turkey, Slovakia, and Poland until he finally ended up in Berlin, where he earned two PhDs in Literature and Astronomy. But by 1932, he found himself again desperate to escape Hitler and the surge of German nationalism. He met Cecilia at an astronomical conference that year, and proposed an arrangement: he could work with her at Harvard, while their marriage could keep him in the US.

Fig. 6: The Divine Scramble and Young Forever (Sergei’s autobiography).

Sergei was an interesting character which is well-reflected in his autobiography: 3 volumes, over 3000 pages, part biography, part sketchbook, part world history textbook, a narrative of science and civilization told with “unadulterated realism”, part epic poem about modern astrophysics and the Space Race, and part illustrated stellar catalogue (The Divine Scramble, 318). He speaks with lengthy pride about his family, his travels, the people he has met, and the work he has accomplished. He also fills the margins with his sketches of people, places, stars, and scenes from his memory. All of this combines into a multi-media narrative which seemed like, to quote the Boston Globe, “a weird mixture of Homer’s Odyssey, Robinson Crusoe, with a little of America, America thrown in.” It was self-published, and distributed to close friends. To those even closer, including Frances Woodworth Wright, Sergei produced an abbreviated fourth volume titled Young Forever, with only 40 pages of photographs, color sketches, and narrative aphorisms (Fig 15, Title Card).

Fig 7a: One of Sergei’s sketches from The Divine Scramble.

Fig 7b: A sketch from Sergei’s autobio, which illustrates his famous “Apollo-Hercules” workout regimen.

Among the many diverse commentaries than run through his autobiography, one of the most salient is a national pride. Sergei loved America because, in America, he saw an orientation of humanity as a whole moving toward a unified goal of scientific progress, triumphing over national and political squabbles that drive humans against each other. He was inspired by the Apollo moon landings — “the taking possession of the Moon in the name of Humanity, the greatest American contribution to mankind’s history!” (The Divine Scramble, 78) –, and he vocally praised President Nixon for his detente policies with China (Sergei was a little more confused about how to process the Watergate scandal). However real this universal/American humanism, Sergei always experienced the liberal freedoms of the US against the memories of war, oppression, forced migration, and discrimination he lived through in eastern Europe. What he saw in the US, and what he found at Harvard, was the means, ability, and opportunity to pursue his dreams in astronomy; it was his “Providential Contact” (The Divine Scramble, 537).

Fig 8: Cecilia and Sergei’s logbooks (from Project PHaEDRA).

Fig 9: Payne-Gaposchkin publications from the Wolbach Library holdings.

Together in Cambridge, Cecilia and Sergei formed a powerhouse that both blazed through astronomical research, and contributed to the life, wellness, and knowledge of their community. They spent most of their lives together working. Their logbooks contain drafts of charts, graphs, variable measurements, and lists of stars thousands of entries long. All of this work culminated in a number of publications, still in Wolbach’s collections and still relevant to the field today. The most recent edition of Introduction to Astronomy was even revised by their daughter, Katherine Haramundanis. Of course, the labor of counting stars and crunching numbers was tedious so Sergei found respite in doodling his wife on his notebooks.

Sergei was always eager to find moments to integrate artistry into his astronomy. Beyond the abstract and expressionist starscapes that he includes in his autobiography (Fig. 10, below), he believed that one inquisitive and one imaginative eye would easily lead to breakthroughs in science. While in Australia surveying the Magellanic clouds, he spent his quiet moments sketching a full picture of the Milky Way across the night sky. Sergei proudly boasted that this was the first full visual representation of the Milky Way ever created:

“If the astronomers in the last century had possessed, in the world of stars, an artistic genius equal to their intellectual grandeur, the realization of the fact that the dramatic multitude of stars is located not in the vicinity of the Sun, but in the direction of Sagittarius-Scorpius, would have dawned not in the twentieth century but in the nineteenth. A visual representation of the whole Milky Way reveals this at once.” (Gaposchkin 1960)

Fig 11: Sergei’s full Map of the Milky Way (from Gaposchkin 1960).

Fig 12: Sergei’s reproduction of Blake’s Ancient of Days. From Project PHaEDRA.

Sergei’s artistic tendencies extended into the classics as well, something which Cecilia appreciated. A few weeks before meeting Sergei, she had made a trip to Soviet Russia, where soldiers searched her belongings and puzzled over a postcard she had with an image of William Blake’s Ancient of Days. Later, after she met Sergei for the first time in Germany, she shared the story and was impressed by his familiarity with the Romantics. At some later point, he replicated that image and gave it to Cecilia, who used it as a bookmark in one of her logbooks. But that’s for the best, because we discovered it tucked away when working on our Project PHaEDRA, and can now preserve it alongside the rest of his and her works.

Cecilia’s artistry mostly fell outside of her astronomy, but she always managed to know a relevant quote or classical verse to accompany each chapter of her monographs. She was inclined towards music — she had studied under Gustav Holst in England. She was also skilled with a needle. In 1975, after many decades of researching supernovae, a colleague asked Cecilia to complete a needlepoint pattern he had made from an image of the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant that appeared on the cover of Scientific American in December of that year. Completed in a few weeks, the final needlepoint is a vibrant and colorful representation of the sort of world Cecilia had been working in: grainy and ill-defined, but limitless with a suited imagination.

Fig 13a: Needlepoint of Cas-A SR, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, 1976 (From Harvard University Archives).

Fig 13b: Needlepoint of Cas-A SR, Detail, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, 1976 (From Harvard University Archives).

But even with such varied and intense professional and artistic pursuits, Cecilia and Sergei still maintained a civic mindset that directed their energy towards the human good. During World War II, in the spirit of the war effort, they bought a farm in western Massachusetts to produce eggs to feed the armies. Sergei later boasted that they “won WWII with 1000 eggs weekly!” Cecilia also wanted to use the farm as a space to provide housing and work for European refugees. However, she found no applicants for any of her postings, and the two had to manage the whole operation alone. After the war, they traded the land for property closer to Boston, but still where they could maintain a sprawling garden. When the team at the Observatory first heard about the USSR’s launch of Sputnik, Cecilia and Sergei immediately opened up their country home for all to bring their telescopes and look for the satellite away from the metropolitan light pollution.

Fig 14: Sergei in his garden. Sergei was notorious for his love of sunbathing. He comments that, through all his travels, the one thing that every nation shares is that “they don’t like my shorts.” From Young Forever.

As individuals with a “strong social sense,” Cecilia and Sergei maintained a patriotism fired by their love for astronomy. Had they not made the Atlantic journey, neither could have accessed the spaces or tools required to think big about the universe. Whether it was flight from social discrimination and institutional repression, or the intellectually stifling atmosphere of fascist nationalism, they found America to be a liberating space where they could act with more agency even if social pressures remained. Cecilia, in her autobiography, reflects on the problems she recognized in the 1920s and 1930s, which mostly related to the treatment and acceptance of Black and Jewish Americans as part of the nation’s social fabric. Many of these issues still exist today in some form, especially towards immigrants. It is most salient from the story of Cecilia and Sergei to realize that, given the opportunity, passionate people thrive in pursuit of their goals. And to many in the world, the US appears as that land of opportunity.

Fig 15: A seal for Cecilia and Sergei, designed and colored by Sergei. From Young Forever.

This is not to say that Cecilia or Sergei considered themselves American nationals. They were simply grateful for the ability to pursue astronomy, to research and publish new information, and educate the world about it. They saw themselves as global citizens, as part of humanity, aimed towards the goal of scientific knowledge and its benefits for all.

Fig 10: Illustrations of the star Nova Hercules, from The Divine Scramble.

Archival Collections

Collections of Cecilia Payne- and Sergei Gaposchkin. Wolbach Library, Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass.

Papers of Harlow Shapley, 1906-1966; HUG 4773.10 Box 89. Harvard University Archives, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Papers of Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin, 1924, circa 1950s-1990s, 2000; HUGB P182.5, P182.50. Harvard University Archives, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. Link.

Project PHaEDRA. Wolbach Library, Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass. Link.

Radcliffe College Alumnae Association Records, ca.1894-2004; RG IX, Series 2, box 241. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Wilbur Kitchener Jordan Records of the President of Radcliffe College, 1943-1960; RG II, Series 3, boxes 27, 60. Radcliffe College Archives, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Special thanks to Sara Schechner and Ken Launie for the loan of two photos (Cecilia and Frances; Young Cecilia and Sergei), whose provenance can be traced back to Frances Wright.

Bibliography and Further Readings

Bartusiak, Marcia. 1993. “The Stuff of Stars.” The Sciences, no. September/October: 34–39.

Boyd, Sylvia. 2014. Portrait of a Binary : The Lives of Cecilia Payne and Sergei Gaposchkin. Penobscot Press.

DeVorkin, David. 2000. Henry Norris Russell : Dean of American Astronomers. Princeton University Press.

———. 2010. “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence: C.H. Payne, H.N. Russell and Standards of Evidence in Early Quantitative Stellar Spectroscopy.” Journal Od Astronomical History and Heritage 13 (2): 139–44.

Gaposchkin, Cecilia Helena Payne. 1984. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography (“The Dyer’s Hand”) and Other Recollections. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gaposchkin, Sergei. 1970. The Divine Scramble. Self-Published.

Gingerich, Owen, Katherine Haramundanis, and Dorrit Hoffleit. 2001. The Starry Universe: The Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin Centenary. L. Davis Press.

Haramundanis, Katherine. 2007. “Gaposchkin, Sergei [Sergej] Illarionovich,” 405–6.

Popova, Maria. 2017. “Stitching a Supernova: A Needlepoint Celebration of Science by Pioneering Astronomer Cecilia Payne.” Brain Pickings (blog). May 10, 2017. Russell,

Russell, Henry Norris. 1929. “On the Composition of the Sun’s Atmosphere.” The Astrophysical Journal 70 (July): 11.

Spiller, James. 2015. Frontiers for the American Century: Outer Space, Antarctica, and Cold War Nationalism. First edition. Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Woodman, Jennifer. 2016. “Stellar Works: Searching for the Lives of Women in Science.” Dissertations and Theses, June.

Wright, Frances. 1987. “Constant Vigilance” an Oral History by Frances Woodworth Wright. Edited by Charles Whitney. Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Edit 2/14/2018: Adding information about Arthur Eddington.

Alex McGrath

Archives Assistant at Wolbach Library
Alex is the Archival Assistant at Wolbach.