When John R. Whitman saw an X-ray image of the Cassiopeia-A supernova in Scientific American in 1975, he decided it would make a lovely needlepoint design, and when he wondered who he might ask to produce it, he immediately thought of his good friend, Dr. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.
“I met with Cecilia to inquire if she might have any interest in producing the first example of my design. She looked at me with her penetrating gray eyes, normally focused on stellar distances, and exclaimed that, yes, she would be delighted to create the Cas-A needlepoint. I was overjoyed.”1
Whitman originally designed his Cas-A pattern as part of a needlepoint kit for Intercraft, a craft startup that never really came together. The prototype – carefully stitched by Dr. Payne-Gaposchkin, then in her seventies and retired – remained in storage for years before joining her collection at the Harvard University Archives.2
In a brief article for PieceWork Magazine in 2004, Whitman described how his friend Philip Charles, a co-author of the Scientific American paper, sent him the data file for the Cas-A X-ray image. He printed the schematic using a computer at the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Short-Lived Phenomena, where he worked at the time.
“The computer I used was, at the time, the largest civilian computer in New England, a CDC-6400 that, when not printing out needlepoint designs, was calculating massive equations for astronomers and tracking satellites (the Smithsonian was then operating the world’s first satellite-tracking system).”
“Several months later, Cecilia presented the needlepoint to me with great pleasure and much pride. It was a gorgeous sight. Her workmanship, primarily employing the Scotch stitch, was superb, and everyone who saw it was highly impressed with its quality and beauty.”
It’s a curious little anecdote, but a valuable one. Dr. Payne-Gaposchkin is rightly remembered for her pioneering work in astronomy and for overcoming so many hurdles to achieve it. This little needlepoint offers a tiny window into her other interests, of which Whitman insists there were many: traveling, cooking, printing, quoting Shakespeare, and devouring mystery novels, to name a few. In his own words:
“Cecilia’s needlepoint rendition of the Cas-A image represents a fascinating intersection of her place in astronomy, her dexterity as an accomplished stitcher, and her devotion as a friend. Created with the hands of a genius who left far more valuable astronomical works behind, this treasure is no less wonderful for her touch.”