Apr 17, 2015 0
A facebook friend recently posted a link to the following image:
I will try to ignore the spelling and grammatical errors, although they are not a promising start. I was surprised by the first one in particular, so I looked into it a bit. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979) was a brilliant early astrophysicist. She did indeed, along with others, make startling discoveries about the molecular composition of stars. The much more senior Russell did indeed suggest (probably quite strongly) that she not publish some of the more startling conclusions. But the text here implies that he stole her idea, repeated it exactly, and then published the same thing and took all the credit. According to wikipedia, this is not what happened at all:
When Payne’s dissertation was reviewed, astronomer Henry Norris Russell dissuaded her from presenting her conclusion that the composition of the Sun was predominantly hydrogen and thus very different from that of the Earth, as it contradicted the accepted wisdom at the time. However, he changed his mind four years later after having derived the same result by different means and publishing it. Although he acknowledged her work briefly in his paper, Russell was still often given credit for the discovery even after Payne had been proved correct.
But perhaps you don’t trust wikipedia, even if it does manage to spell Russell correctly. Fortunately I happen to own Payne-Gaposchkin’s autobiography, so I looked up references to Russell. She describes him (20 years after his death, and shortly before her own) as “a great man” – “not sensitive, vain, or vindictive”, although she admits that he did not have the “gift of letting his associates share the sense of achievement” (p.178).
Interestingly, in the same paragraph where she says that the “feminine urges to cook, to sew, to entertain were natural to me”, she concludes by writing: “during my whole scientific life I have never had a sense of being inferior, never been conscious that my fellow-scientists considered me inferior, on account of my sex” (p.167) . Of course she was at a disadvantage in many ways as a woman, and for every man who went out of his way to support her there was another man who actively discriminated against her. She understood this dynamic perfectly well, and she makes a point of saying how much better was the situation in america (harvard) than in her native england (cambridge).
It is also undoubtedly true that her discoveries are remembered less well because she was a woman (as the wikipedia description attests), so I agree completely with the sentiment of the image above. In fact I know for a fact that this still happens (albeit less often and less explicitly) and it is a disgrace. But advocates do themselves a disservice through slipshod research (especially regarding scientists!), by defaming people who were not (in this case) at fault, and by distorting the facts – facts which require no distortion at all in order to serve the intended purpose.
It seems fitting to close with Payne-Gaposchkin’s own words from a late chapter “On being a woman” (pp.226-7):
As I look back I ask myself what difference it has made to me as a scientist that I was born a woman. As concerns the intellectual side of the matter, I should say that it has made very little. [...] On the material side, being a woman has been a great disadvantage. It is a tale of low salary, lack of status, slow advancement. But I have reached a height that I should never, in my wildest dreams, have predicted 50