Great Women in Astronomical History (2)

Cecilia Payne found out what the Sun is made of. This seems like it should be a bigger deal.


I learned about Cecilia Payne from two books: “15 Million Degrees: A Journey to the Centre of the Sun” by solar physicist Lucie Green, and “13.8: The Quest to Find the True Age of the Universe and the Theory of Everything” by veteran science writer John Gribbin. This post is based mainly on information extracted from those two books. Both authors described her as probably the most underrated astrophysicist of the twentieth century. Her story illustrates the struggle of female scientists to win recognition.

Born in England, Payne studied sciences at Cambridge University but was not awarded a degree- she was disqualified by her fatal lack of a “Y” chromosome. So she made the move to America. Following in the footsteps of Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt, she arrived at Harvard College Observatory in 1923 to join their new graduate program in astronomy. Her PhD thesis was to quietly make history.

When sunlight or the light of a distant star is spilt through a prism, the resulting rainbow spectrum contains spectral lines. A thin, dark line interrupting the colours shows where atoms in the outer atmosphere of the star are absorbing light. Different chemical elements have a strong preference for particular wavelengths of light: for example, hydrogen produces dark lines in four very precise places in the visible spectrum.

The absorption lines in sunlight show mostly the same chemical elements that are common on Earth. So astronomers naturally assumed that the Sun and the Earth are made of similar stuff in similar proportions. The relative strength of the different lines seemed to back this up. Payne showed that this was an illusion.

Her PhD work was a fiendishly complex analysis of the effects of temperature on light absorption by ionised atoms of different elements. She showed that these effects were confusing the picture. In fact, the bulk of the Sun- 99 percent of it- was made up of the two lightest elements, hydrogen and helium. All the rest, including elements like iron and silicon that are very common on Earth, were merely traces- a thin foam of heavy elements on a vast boiling sea of hydrogen and helium. And the other stars were much the same.

When it came to seeking publication, Payne was told that her results were too implausible to be true. She was strongly discouraged from pressing home her conclusions. Instead, she included a caveat saying that her new approach had produced results that were almost certainly wrong. Still, her colleagues knew of her radical new model of the sun, and the results were out there in print.

The idea of a hydrogen/helium Sun percolated gradually through the astronomical community, but not everyone who took it up seems to have known who originated it. It helped provide the answer to one of the burning scientific questions of the day: how has the Sun managed to keep shining for billions of years?

Astrophysicists thought the newly-discovered nuclear reactions might supply the power, but couldn’t get the theory to work for a Sun of Earthlike composition. German physicist Hans Bethe eventually cracked the problem: he found a chain reaction where hydrogen nuclei can fuse together to make helium nuclei, releasing huge amounts of energy. This could only happen naturally in the heart of Cecilia Payne’s “implausible” hydrogen/helium Sun.

Happily, Payne’s career did not end with her marriage as it might well have done a generation previously. She married the astronomer Sergei Gaposchkin (changing her name to Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin), with whom she collaborated with in some of her later work. But she never did get the recognition that was her due.


Salvage Suite

I spent January at the piano, dealing with unfinished business. Let me explain:

When I was studying music at University, I spent a lot of time trying to be a composer. And I mean “trying.” I finished the occasional piece and some of them were OK. A couple were more than OK. But for every completed piece of music, I started about eight others that just disintegrated on the page.

I can see now that there were two main problems. Firstly, I was an insane perfectionist with an almost total lack of technical skill. I was trying to get everything just right when I didn’t even know how to get it kinda-sorta right.

Secondly, I was forever trying to reconcile my own rather 19th-century taste in mellow tunefulness with the prickly, atonal modernism favoured by most other student composers and by our lecturers. And again, this challenge was way beyond my skill level.

All this turned composing into a source of misery and depression instead of pride and joy. Since then, I’ve given up on composing for years at a time. Every so often I’d come back to it and write a couple of short piano pieces solely for my own enjoyment, which took a lot of the pressure off. I also found a slim textbook by a certain P. I. Tchaikovsky, which remains the only comprehensible book on strict classical harmony I’ve ever seen.

Meanwhile, I became a singer-songwriter and found the joy of getting music to do what I want it to do. Learning the guitar was a godsend. It does a lot of the grunt work for you, allowing you to concentrate on the bigger picture.

For February Album Writing Month last year, I decided to write some tiny piano pieces. My rules: Don’t worry about whether the style is “acceptable.” Don’t worry about whether the notes are “right.” Just write, as fast as you can. I wrote seven preludes that month, and added five more to the set in March. For the first time, I felt like I was “back” as a composer.

I felt like giving my horribly frustrated 20-year-old self some closure at last. So last month I dug out some of my manuscript books from nearly two decades ago. I took six of the better ideas and turned them into six tiny, tiny piano pieces. (It’s early days yet: that’s about all I’m good for!) The third one is something I wrestled with for months back then. Now, it took me under an hour to solve all the problems with it. I call the result “Salvage Suite.”

There’s also a song, which I haven’t figured out how to record yet as my “piano” is actually a Yamaha keyboard that’s old enough to vote. It rattles loudly, so I have to record it through headphone splitters! Come March, I’ll start looking for a proper electric piano.

I’ve finally earned it.

The Melancholy Wail of the Ukulele

When recording my songs at home, I have to face facts and make lemonade.

I live in a small council flat, underneath a young and rather loud family. If I wait until I won’t disturb or be disturbed, I’ll wait a long time. So from now on I’ll be more blasée about firing up the ol’ Zoom recorder. So long as there’s not a full-blown tantrum in progress overhead, I can tolerate the odd footstep or muted wail. Plus, if anything, my singing seems to calm the sproglets down. Or bore them. Not sure I care which, to be honest.

I’ve spent a lot of time nursing a foot wound this year, which means a lot of time sat at a strange angle feeling bored. That’s the lemons. The lemonade? Ukuleles are great for playing in awkward postures! So I’ve got a whole lot of uke practice in lately, while neglecting my guitar and not even touching the poor old bass.

Here’s some of the sparkly stuff:


Think “ukulele,” and you think “cheerful.” Happy songs, major chords, manic speed or up-tempo swing. Possibly Manic Pixie Dream Girls wearing berets. I have different ideas. My friend Deb is probably to blame- she got me into ukulele playing by showing me (amoung other things) a uke cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” on YouTube. But it’s also the sounds I discover while exploring that tiny, tiny fretboard.

Many chords are much easier to play on ukulele than on guitar. So a wild and melancholy E-flat minor or a G-minor-with-major-7th can easily sneak into a simple C major song. This has made me more adventurous harmonically as I can try out all kinds of odd juxtapositions with very little effort.

I’m also very keen on fingerpicking. This is where, instead of strumming all the strings, you pluck them individually with your fingertips. It’s not that commonly used on the ukulele, because it takes more thought than on a guitar. The uke only has four strings, and they’re pitched in an odd way: high, low, medium, high*. With those restrictions it isn’t easy to find a good fingerpicking pattern for a song, but when you do the results are often striking and rather haunting.

I tend to neglect my ukulele stuff, so I’ve started that new Soundcloud playlist for them. The first four, “Different Moon,” “Who Knows,” “Blue Dwarf Star” and “Scarborough Sunday,” are all songs I’ve finished in the last 4-5 weeks. I’ll be interested to know what you think.

Some of my geeky obsessions are on display here. Blue dwarfs are a kind of star that doesn’t exist yet. They’re what red dwarf stars grow up to be once they stop fusing hydrogen. But the Universe is nowhere near old enough for even the very first red dwarfs to go through that change. And “Scarborough Sunday” comes from memories of Fantasycon by the Sea in 2016: sitting on the patio outside the bar in the Grand Hotel in Scarborough, looking over the windswept North Sea.

*That’s the standard, “re-entrant” tuning, G C E A.

Great Women in Astronomical History (1)

I’ve been reading up on the history of astronomy lately. One thing strikes me: until fairly recently, very few women had the chance to make a name for themselves in the field, but those who did were spectacular over-achievers. Some made major discoveries that the scientific community has been very slow to give them credit for. I’m far from an expert, but I’d like to share some of my favourite stories.

Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) was the sister of William Herschel, the musician-turned-astronomer who discovered the planet Uranus. Born in Hanover in a family who neglected and exploited her, she had few prospects until her brother took her to England to train as a singer for his concert series. This role morphed into that of unpaid astronomer’s assistant. Amidst a gruelling schedule of grinding telescope mirrors and note-taking during all-night observation sessions, she found time to learn the skills of the science and to make her own observations. She discovered an impressive total of eight comets, and later complied the most accurate and detailed star atlas of the Northern hemisphere to date. It was presented as an updated version of Flamsteed’s catalogue, and published under her brother’s name. Continue reading

Mashup: “Harry Potter and the Mirror Empire”


SORTING HAT: Oh, this is interesting.


HAT: Harry, you have the makings of a very powerful Omajista!

HARRY: What’s that when it’s at home?

HAT: Drawing on the power of the dark star Oma, you would become a great master of blood magic.

HARRY: That… doesn’t sound like such a good thing.

HAT: Oh, but think, Harry! You could be great, you know, it’s all here in your blood, and Oma will help you to greatness. With a sufficiently large mass human sacrifice, you could tear open the walls that divide the universes!


HAT: Or I could just put you in Gryffindor.


HERMIONE GRANGER: Come quickly, Professor Flitwick! Malfoy’s just cast Disembowelatus on Ron!

PROFESSOR FLITWICK: Don’t worry. What with that immortality curse Professor Snape put on him for copying your homework, he’ll be up and around in no time.

RON WEASLEY: Why… can’t…. I… die…?

FLITWICK: Now, now, Weasley. Don’t talk like that. The world needs you. We need you… to maintain Professor Dumbledore’s artificial spleen for him. Heaven forfend he should ever die, there’d be blood in the halls for months.

RON: Get… Hufflepuffs… to… grow… another….

FLITWICK: You know the star Huffle is descendent. Hufflepuffs are weak and useless now.

HERMIONE: Hold on now, Ron, you’re almost there! Your… er, I think that’s your duodenum climbing back in through the hole. I kind of wish I didn’t know that.

RON: Ugh. That’s better. Blasted Malfoy, I’ll make him eat slugs next time! Um. Why is everyone staring at me?

HERMOINE: You look… different. And your voice. It isn’t breaking anymore.

RON: [hopefully] Is it all deep and manly now? Oh. No. No, it’s not. Not again. I’ll never hear the end of this when Fred and George find out.

HERMIONE: It’s all right, Ron. There’s a spare bed in the girls’ dorm.


PROFESSOR DUMBLEDORE: As some of you may know, a student died today. Kathioka Maasaar of House Ravenclaw, a talented young parajista and a friend to many of you. I myself shall miss her a great deal. Our dinner tonight will not be vegetarian for once, as we honour the remains of the deceased in our traditional manner. [pause] Professor Snape, would you care to carve?


HARRY: But I saw them! I saw them! My parents are alive!

DUMBLEDORE: Harry, when we very much want something, there are magics that can mislead-

HARRY: I took a picture! On my phone!

DUMBLEDORE: Dammit. OK, I’ll level with you. Your parents are dead, Harry. But picture another world in which there are two people just like Lily and James Potter. Or rather, who look just like your mother and father. They led very different lives from their equivalents in our world. So different, in fact, that by now you could hardly consider them to be the same people at all.

HARRY: But if they look just like my parents, surely they’re the same people inside? I mean, really?


HARRY: How so?

DUMBLEDORE: Your parents were… how shall I put it? Significantly less genocidal.

HARRY: I guess.

DUMBLEDORE: And also didn’t have killer trees growing out of their wrists. See, that’s a bit of a giveaway.

[The Mirror Empire: vol 1 of the Worldbreaker Saga by Kameron Hurley. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling, of course.]



BVW 835/2

My brief career as a burglar ended the night I tried to rob the Browns.

On paper, it looked easy. The Browns’ place had an easy-to-climb white picket fence, like a tornado had picked up a little piece of middle America and dropped it here in Hexborough. A path led along the bottom of the back garden, and the house across the path was hidden by conifers. I’d seen where they hid the spare back door key, under a plant pot on the patio.

There was a doghouse, which worried me at first. Then I saw the occupant. It was a goofy-looking white beagle that mooched around like it was in some doggy daydream. It never barked, never even wagged its tail. I doubted it was a biter, but I packed a couple of dog biscuits anyway.

It was a mild October night. Cloudy and still, which was how I liked it. Creeping unobserved down the path, I pulled on my balaclava and gloves. I picked a part of the fence overshadowed by a tree in the Browns’ garden, and threw my jacket over it to pad the pointy tops of the boards. One leg over, other leg over- simple. I kept perfectly still for a while, watching and listening. No lights. No movement. I tiptoed towards the house.

Then came the music.

I froze. Someone, somewhere, was playing a toy piano. It sounded very close, but slightly muffled. To my astonishment, I recognised the music as the Fugue in D-Sharp Minor, BWV 853/2, from Book 1 of J.S. Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.”

I should mention that although I was a burglar, I was not altogether uncultured. I’d nicked car stereos in some pretty ritzy areas. I took any cassettes I found, too. The previous year I’d hit the jackpot, scoring a four-tape set of Glenn Gould playing the forty-eight preludes and fugues of “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” The music blew my mind; I got lost for hours in its complexities and shifting colours. A few months later, I harvested the replacement stereo from the same car, and what do you know? they’d replaced the Bach as well. This time it was a rather more purist interpretation by András Schiff. So I knew the “48” pretty damn well, is what I’m saying.

And this mysterious toy-pianist was better than Gould or Schiff. Technically perfect, for all the limitations of the instrument: each line of the counterpoint was clear and well-articulated. That D-sharp minor fugue is a long and serious one. The unseen player gave it a sense of dignified purpose in the shadow of tragedy, the main theme patiently leading the way through all the wild and melancholy key-changes to the hard-won light of day. It bought tears to my eyes and sent a shiver down my spine.

The music finished, and I remembered where I was: stood on one foot in someone else’s garden at 2AM, a balaclava pulled over my face. Still I couldn’t move.

The dog came out of the doghouse.

It was walking on its hind legs like it was the most natural thing in the world. That ugly white dog stopped, and looked right at me. It raised its front paws and wiggled its… I can only call them fingers. Agile, clawless digits, short but disturbingly human. The dog grinned at me, a wide, wide grin full of sharp yellow teeth.

I ran. I don’t even remember getting over the fence, or which way I ran. I ran all the way home, three and a half miles. Later, as I put my trousers in the wash, I resolved to live an honest life from then on.


©Copyright David Breslin 2016

H.P. Lovecraft at the Zoo

H.P.LOVECRAFT: What the devil is THAT?

CLARK ASHTON SMITH: It’s a wallaby, Howard.

HPL: A wallaby? How abominable. Such a coarse, vacant-eyed beast! Its bristly body seems distorted into a squamous, alien shape, and a mephitic stench arises from its foul brood-sac.

CAS: I think it’s cute.

HPL: And yet…. There is an air of twisted, degenerate humanity about it. That posture, so upright, in mocking imitation of our own! Clarke, tell me truly, can wallabies and humans interbreed?

CAS: I don’t believe it’s ever been tried.

HPL: Not tried? Not tried? Oh, but God help me, it has!

CAS: Are you feeling all right?

HPL: I can see it now, however much I wish I couldn’t. My own dear grandmother was a secret wallaby.

CAS: I thought you said she was a newt?

HPL: She was a wallaby, I tell you. And that tainted blood runs within my own veins. I am cursed, Clarke, cursed to become… THAT!

CAS: I keep telling you, Howard. You’re not cursed, you’re just different.

HPL: Even now, I can feel the wallaby rising within me. Hark, can you hear it? “Sproing, sproing!”

CAS: Shall I get your straitjacket?

HPL: That would be helpful. Who knows what I might do when the curse comes upon me?



©Copyright David Breslin 2016