Casual Conversation with Professor Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

A special Casual Conversation on Tuesday, May 18 at 5 pm Eastern will feature as our guest the Chair of Dartmouth’s History Department, Professor Cecilia Gaposchkin.  This is the second of our Zoom sessions with Dartmouth faculty, the first being the Jewish Culture Group’s meeting with Jewish Studies Professor Susannah Heschel, daughter of the famed Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Professor Gaposchkin also has a distinguished forbear, her grandmother Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.  If you don’t know about her, you should, for she led a remarkable life of great achievement against great odds, ultimately becoming the first full professor at Harvard through regular faculty promotion.   She attained the distinction by her pioneering work in astronomy and astrophysics that led her to the discovery of the makeup of stars.  Payne-Gaposchkin concluded from analysis of spectra readings that stars consist largely of helium and hydrogen, and are not made from the substances as Earth, which was the received scientific wisdom of the time.   Here is a short piece from the most recent The Key Reporter that discusses Payne-Gaposchkin’s life: .
As with Professor Heschel, Dartmouth’s Professor Gaposchkin is an accomplished teacher and scholar, her field being light-years away from her grandmother’s: late medieval cultural history.  See .  And that brings us to the present and to the second subject that Professor Gaposchkin can speak with us about: what happened to the culture of the society whose population was reduced by up to half by the Black Death?  And how and whether we can draw lessons from that history to what the world faces as it recovers from the current pandemic.  This week Professor Gaposchkin is giving a talk on the Black Death to the Vermont Humanities Council.
If you want to learn more about Professor Payne-Gaposchkin in advance of the Casual Conversation, there is a good amount of material out there.  Bill Stableford just read an essay about her in Dispatches from Planet 3 by MIT Professor Marcia Bartusiak (Yale University Press).  For the Black Death, an excellent introduction is available through The Great Courses in a series of lectures given by Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.  You may also want to pick up a copy the January 2021 issue of Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies, a publication of The Medieval Academy of America, which features three articles touching on the plague, including “Laying the Corpses to Rest: Grain, Embargoes, and Yersinia pestis in the Black Sea, 1346-48” by Hannah Barker, Assistant Professor of History at Arizona State University.  Here is a summary of her research: .
Last Friday night, it took Professor Gaposchkin exactly eleven minutes to respond and agree to speak with us.  The date and time was set within just a few more email exchanges, Professor Gaposchkin offering to adjust her schedule by picking up her children early to accommodate us.  I hope that the Class will respond to her generosity by showing up en masse on May 18 at 5 pm.  That is, if you are interested in the history and sociology of science, in astronomy and astrophysics, in what the past can teach us about the future of the world in recovering from the pandemic; or if you are merely possessed of a healthy curiosity.
And imagine the gift of being able to say to a grandchild, grand niece or nephew, or other child who asks what stars are made of: “Let me tell you a story of a remarkable woman who looked to the sky and saw in the stars what no else had seen before her.  Her granddaughter told me.”
If you want to join this Zoom discussion, please send me an RSVP email at .
Arthur Fergenson