Inspiring Thursday: Margherita Hack

Known as the “Lady of the Stars”, Margherita Hack, the most famous Italian astrophysicist, was the first woman to lead an astronomical observatory in Italy. Committed atheist, feminist, and vegetarian, Margherita publicly advocated for laws in favour of abortion, euthanasia and homosexual couples’ civil rights.

Margherita Hack was born on June 12, 1922 in Florence, to a Protestant father and Catholic mother. She enrolled at the university as a student of literature. After one class, she switched to physics. She graduated in 1945, having worked on her thesis on variable stars while dodging the bombs of the second world war.

In 1944 she married Aldo De Rosa and afterwards would claim that her marriage had been the “first and last time” she had been in a church. She had agreed to a religious ceremony to please her mother-in-law, a devout Catholic. “When I pass away,” she said, “if I meet God, I will tell him I was wrong.”

Although she would never sit final exams due to the outbreak of World War II, she launched her career as an astrophysicist in 1945, a very much male-dominated job at that time.

By the early 1950s she was staff researcher at the Astronomical Observatory of Arcetri in Florence. In 1954, she moved to the Astronomical Observatory of Brera in Milan and in 1964 she obtained a full professorship in Trieste, where she remained. From 1964 to 1987 she became director of the Astronomical Observatory of Trieste, the first woman to hold such a position in Italy, and director of the Department of Astronomy of the local university. She transformed the local Astronomical Observatory from a small and anonymous institute into a modern research centre, bringing it to international fame. This radical transformation was made possible by the unique combination of management skills, scientific vision and strong character, all coexisting within her unique personality.

Her research provided remarkable contributions in the field of stellar variability and stellar atmospheres. In particular, Margherita contributed in the fields of stellar spectroscopy and radio astronomy. The asteroid 8558 Hack is named after her.

Margherita Hack’s scientific interests and research activity covered a broad range of subjects. Her main field of expertise concerned the observation and interpretation of the spectroscopic characteristics of stars. Her research in this field involved the study of the chemical composition of stars, and of their surface temperature and gravity. She was among the first Italian astronomers to understand clearly that space telescopes represented the future of astronomical and cosmological research. During the 1970s she worked on the UV data from the Copernicus satellite, with the purpose of studying the energetic phenomena that take place in the external part of the stellar atmosphere and cause mass losses that need to be accounted for in the theoretical models of stellar evolution. Her first research article based on data from Copernicus was published in Nature in 1974. Her continuous push towards planning and building new instrumentation led her, with other researchers of the Astronomical Observatory of Trieste, to have a prominent role in the 1980s in the definition and scientific exploitation of the International Ultraviolet Explorer satellite mission.

Margherita Hack had a gift for explaining complex scientific concepts to the layman, and as well as writing popular science books she became a familiar figure on Italian television. Over the past 20 years she published an impressive number of books in popular astronomy, in which she explains the most recent discoveries in astrophysics and cosmology in plain language, with the purpose of educating new generations in scientific culture.
Margherita worked at many American and European observatories and was for long time member of working groups of ESA and NASA where she gained not only access to satellites and other state-of-art stargazing equipment, but also worldwide fame for her astronomical knowledge.

Margherita Hack was equally well known for being very active in defending and promoting civil rights and secularism in a Catholic and patriarchal Italian society. She helped fight a successful campaign to legalise abortion and championed gay rights, stem-cell research, the right to euthanasia and animal rights. Among her victories, she campaigned against construction of nuclear reactors in Italy. Vegetarian since childhood, she was also an advocate for animal protection and lived with eight cats and a dog.

She was an atheist and she did not believe in any religion or form of supernaturalism. She also believed that ethics does not derive from religion, but from “principles of conscience” that allow anyone to have a secular view of life, respectful of other people’s individuality and freedom. She publicly promoted tolerance and respect for individual lifestyle choices. “Homophobia is a big sign of ignorance because the tendency is always to attack and despise diversity while we should all be equal before the law”.

She condemned the influence of religion on State. She was the best-known spokesperson of the Italian Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics. In the 2nd half of the 20th century, with Italy digging out of its fascist past, she also spoke out on behalf of Italy’s left-wing causes.

“The Church minds its own business. It is up to the government, which should be lay, to set the conditions so that people can study more, better and that everyone can do it, giving young people the chance of employ themselves in the fields they studied for. The Church obstructs research for religious prejudices (…) For instance the law 40 on assisted fecundation where it is forbidden to use embryos because these are supposed to have a soul while it is well known that the research on embryonic stem cells can allow to cure many diseases and brings extraordinary results in medicine. Therefore, if the Church bans it because of its dogma and preconceptions, well, it is free to do it, it is the government the one who should not yield to it”.

When, in 1992, the Roman Catholic Church officially admitted that it had been wrong to condemn Galileo for asserting that the earth orbits the sun, she said that it was “better late than never”.

It was only because of the deterioration of her health that her visits to the observatory became more sporadic. Nevertheless, she was always eager to be updated on the successes and on the problems of the institute, often related to the lack of financial support for research. And it was precisely the indifference of a political class towards properly supporting research that infuriated Margherita, with a vehemence worthy of a young person who is eager to contribute to create a better world.

Margherita died June 29, 2013, at the age of 91. She was a strong, intelligent, determined, and independent woman, committed to her profession as well as to important social and political causes. An optimist with a cheerful disposition, she succeeded in making a mark in the field of astrophysics, a predominantly male field.

By Chiara Paganelli, WAVE Intern


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