You’ve heard of Carl Sagan, right?
Well, get ready to meet Margherita Hack!
While Margherita Hack was out-of-this-world brilliant, she stayed forever down-to-earth. Italy’s “Lady of the Stars” was an astrophysicist specialized in stellar spectroscopy, yet she was dedicated to communicating both her scientific findings as well as her political opinions in plain, understandable, everyday terms. As a result, she became one of her country’s most beloved cultural icons and one of it’s first “popular scientists.” Her accomplishments are all the more notable because astrophysics was then, as it is now, a male-dominated field.
Yet, she remains largely unknown to the international public. So we’re delighted to introduce her to you today.
Margherita came into her own during her undergraduate years at the University of Florence in the early 1940s. Like most women, she initially entered as a student of literature. But she quickly became fascinated with astrophysics, spending long hours in the Arcetri Observatory. Unlike most women, her parents did not stop her.
Although she and her classmates would never sit final exams due to the outbreak of World War II, she launched her career as an astrophysicist in 1945 – a woman among men. For the next 20 years, she wrote hundreds of papers for scientific journals worldwide, distinguishing herself as a scientist of repute. She founded the magazine L'Astronomia for the scientific community. But she also found a popular voice – communicating the most complicated science in the clearest of terms for the benefit of the layperson in such titles as I'll Tell You About Astronomy and So Speak the Stars.
Dr. Hack went on to earn a full-time professorship in astronomy at the University of Trieste. And in 1964, she became the first woman, ever, to run the Trieste Astronomical Observatory. She would remain in the role until 1987, bringing the insitution to international fame.
But wasn’t all about science and the stars for Margherita. 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. Like her forbear, Galileo, who ran afoul of the priests when he suggested the earth – and man – was not the center of the universe, Margherita became especially known for her criticism of the Catholic Church and its institutions. She believed that ethics do not derive from religion, but from "principles of conscience." She hued to a secular view of life, publicly promoting not just tolerance of but also respect for individual lifestyle choices. In particular, she was an outspoken advocate for civil rights, rational thinking, gay rights, and vegetarianism.