• Observations

Women in Astronomy: The Modern Astrophysicists

Raghda Abdel Khaleq is an astronomy guide at Sydney Observatory and a physics student at the University of New South Wales. To celebrate International Women’s Day Raghda looks at the modern astrophysicists.

‘There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman.’ – Vera Rubin

From the beginning of time, female scientists and philosophers have made immense contributions towards developing and refining emerging scientific theories. These contributions continued well into the 20th century, not only helping enhance our understanding of the world around us, but also paving the way for other women in science to succeed and thrive. Three of these perhaps lesser known female astrophysicists are Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Margaret Burbidge and Vera Rubin.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900 – 1979)

Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin
Image Credit: Smithsonian Institution from United States [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Born Cecilia Helena Payne on the 10th May 1900 in England, Payne’s interest in Astronomy was sparked after attending Sir Arthur Eddington’s lecture on his 1919 expedition testing Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity at Cambridge University, where she was enrolled at the time. As Cambridge University did not grant women the opportunity to graduate with a full degree until 1948, Payne moved to the United States in 1923 to work under Harlow Shapely, the director of the Harvard College Observatory.

She became the first person to earn a PhD in Astronomy from Radcliffe College, and studied the relationship between stars’ temperatures and their spectral class using ionization theory. Payne also concluded that stars are largely made of hydrogen, a contribution that is generally attributed to Henry Norris Russell, who came to the same conclusion four years later. She went on to make more than 3 million observations of variable stars in her career.
Her achievements inspired many later female astrophysicists, such as Joan Feynman, and paved the way for more women in the primarily male-dominated scientific community. Her paper has been called ‘undoubtedly the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy’ by astronomers Otto Struve and Velta Zeberg. Harvard College Observatory went on to offer more opportunities in astronomy to women than other institutions at the time.

Margaret Burbidge (
1919 – )

Margaret Burbidge
Image Credit: Annie Gracy (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Burbidge was born in England on the 12th August 1919. She began studying astronomy in 1936 at University College London, and later completed her PhD in 1943. As many women would have at the time, Burbidge experienced some difficulties advancing her career in astronomy, for example, she was refused the Carnegie Fellowship in 1945 as females were forbidden to work at Mount Wilson Observatory.
Despite this, Burbidge’s achievements far surpassed her struggles. Her collaborative research with Geoffrey Burbidge, William Alfred Fowler, and Fred Hoyle resulted in the B2FH theory outlining stellar nucleosynthesis, an important theory for subsequent areas of astrophysics. She later went on to study stars, quasars and galaxies. She became director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory in 1972, became the first female president of the American Astronomy society in 1976, and became president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1981.
She became an influential figure for women in science, refusing the Annie J. Cannon Award due to it being awarded to women only, stating that ‘It is high time that discrimination in favour of, as well as against, women in professional life be removed.’ Burbidge was inducted into the Women’s Museum of California Hall of Fame for her numerous contributions and achievements.

Vera Rubin (1928 – 2016)

Vera Rubin (second from left)
From Left to Right: Anne Kinney, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; Vera Rubin, Dept. of Terrestrial Magnetism, Carnegie Institute of Washington; Nancy Grace Roman Retired NASA Goddard; Kerri Cahoy, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.; Randi Ludwig. University of Texas, Austin, Texas. Photo taken during the NASA Sponsors Women in Astronomy and Space Science 2009 Conference, held at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Inn and Conference Center, Adelphi, Md, October 21-23 2009.
Image Credit: By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Vera Florence Cooper was born on 23rd July 1928 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Gazing outside her window every night, a sense of wonder and awe towards the stars and the night sky grew. Her insatiable curiosity followed her through her education, where she became the only astronomy graduate in her class at Vassar College in 1948. Rubin later received her PhD from Georgetown University in 1954, where she extensively studied the rotations of galaxies. Despite her later successes, she initially faced gender discrimination. She was refused entrance into Princeton University’s graduate program due to her gender, however, she later became the first female astronomer to work at the Palomar Observatory.
She collaborated with Kent Ford, who was responsible for building the spectrograph she used for her measurements. Her research studied the orbital speeds of stars at the outskirts of galaxies, and contradicted Newtonian gravity, in that the furthest objects did not travel at considerably slower speeds. This provided new crucial evidence for the existence of dark matter, which is thought to make up 85% of the mass of the universe.
Her successes later landed her a spot as the second female astronomer in the National Academy of Science. Rubin also received the US National Medal of Science, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in London, the Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal and many other honorary titles. Her dedication to science, alongside her commitment to motherhood whilst working and studying, has allowed her to become a role model to young girls and women in science, an issue she constantly advocated for. Unfortunately, Vera Rubin passed away in 2016, without receiving the Nobel Prize many believed she rightfully deserved.

In the next post we’ll look at the astronauts who have explored space in a way many of us only dream about.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *