One of our recommended books for 2020 is What Stars Are Made of by Donovan Moore

WHAT STARS ARE MADE OF

The Life of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin


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.

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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.

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  • Harvard University Press
  • Hardcover
  • March 2020
  • 320 Pages
  • 9780674237377

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$29.95

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About Donovan Moore

Donovan Moore is the author of What Stars Are Made Of, credit Jessica ImhoffDonovan Moore has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, including the Boston Globe and Rolling Stone, and has worked as a television reporter and producer.

Praise

“Male astronomers often achieve a popular fame that eluded one of the field’s most distinguished women: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. That should be remedied by Donovan Moore’s engaging and accessible biography. It skillfully opens up Payne’s achievements and adventures by setting them in the global village of astronomy… Moore illuminates Payne’s development into a remarkable scientist.” —Giuseppina Fabbiano, Nature

“Moore takes readers on a meticulously researched tour of Payne-Gaposchkin’s remarkable life, drawn from family interviews, contemporary accounts and Payne-Gaposchkin’s own writings. It’s a riveting tale of a woman who knocked down every wall put before her to get the answers she desired about the cosmos.” —Christopher Crockett, Science News

“An engaging, enlightening biography about a key figure in astrophysics in the 20th century.” —Jeff Foust, Space Review

“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)

“Illuminates the amazing life and work of astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin… Moore captures a fascinating period of change in science, when physics was in flux and astrophysics was brand-new, and in the world as a whole, as new opportunities opened up for women. This is a fascinating look at a pioneer in science.” —Publishers Weekly

“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