From Lake Afton Public Observatory:



Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: In Her Own Words

by John Beaver

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was a towering figure in 20th-century astronomy. Born in 1900 in Buckinghamshire, England, she came to the United States in 1923 to begin a 40-year career at Harvard College Observatory. One of the key figures in the development of the astrophysics of stars, she is probably best remembered for determining a temperature scale for the different types of stars. But besides the vast volume of pure research to her credit, Payne-Gaposchkin was a talented writer and organizer of existing knowledge. Late in life she wrote a delightfully readable account, titled The Dyer's Hand, of her life as an astronomer. Since her own words speak best, what follows is a set of random selections of Payne-Gaposchkin quotables. You can find The Dyer's Hand reprinted in Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections, edited by Katherine Haramundis (1984, Cambridge University Press).

"One winter evening my Mother was wheeling me in my pram, and we saw a brilliant meteorite blaze across the sky. . . She . . . taught me the right name for it by making a little rhyme: As we were walking home that night/ We saw a shining meteorite. It was my first encounter with astronomy."

"When I won a coveted prize. . . I was asked what book I would choose to receive. It was considered proper to select Milton, or Shakespeare. . . . I said I wanted a textbook on fungi. I was deaf to all expostulation: that was what I wanted, and in the end I got it, elegantly bound in leather as befitted a literary giant."

"All motion, I had learned, was relative. Suddenly, as I was walking down a London street, I asked myself: ærelative to what?'. The solid ground failed beneath my feet. With the familiar leaping of the heart I had my first sense of the Cosmos."

"At a very early age . . . I made up my mind to do research, and was seized with panic at the thought that everything might be found out before I was old enough to begin!"

"The thirst for knowledge . . . can only be satisfied by complete intellectual integrity."

"I have come to wish that all scientific work could be published anonymously, to stand or fall by its intrinsic worth. But this is an unrealistic wish, and I know it."

"On the material side, being a woman has been a great disadvantage. It is a tale of low salary, lack of status, slow advancement. . . . It has been a case of survival, not of the fittest, but of the most doggedly persistent."

"Do not undertake a scientific career in quest of fame or money. There are easier and better ways to reach them. Undertake it only if nothing else will satisfy you; for nothing else is probably what you will receive. Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. And if you achieve that reward you will ask no other."

"There is no joy more intense than that of coming upon a fact that cannot be understood in terms of currently accepted ideas."

"Nature has always had a trick of surprising us, and she will continue to surprise us. But she has never let us down yet. We can go forward with confidence--Knowing that Nature never did betray/The heart that loved her."

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