Margherita Hack was an Italian astrophysicist, scientific disseminator and icon of free thought.
Featuring artwork & words by Dr. Eleonora Adami, Sci-Illustrate Stories. Set in motion by Dr. Radhika Patnala.
When I was little, I thought Margherita was Madam Mim (Merlin’s main antagonist in “The sword in the stone”) in flesh and bones.
I think I initially saw some resemblance in the bob haircut: I mean it is undeniable. Now, I see also a certain ironic sense of humour and roughness as shared characteristics. However, while Madam Mim is a fictional, competitive and deceitful maniac, Margherita was a well respected scientist and an adamant champion of civil rights and free thought.
Margherita was born in Florence in 1922, during the Fascist regime.
She liked sports, in particular basketball and athletics.
And then WWII happened. Margherita couldn’t actually properly finish high school (couldn’t give the final exam because of the war), but managed to further her education enrolling at the University of Florence.
She first chose Literature, as she liked to write assays and had done classical studies in high school. After the first few days however, she found she couldn’t keep awake and decided to switch to Physics: not because of an ardent passion for the subject that all kids are expected to show nowadays, but because a friend of hers had chosen that path as well.
Ex post, we can say it was definitely a good choice. Margherita’s thesis in astrophysics was about stellar spectroscopy, on Cepheid variables, a field in which she is still a point of reference.
The scientific Career
Her career brought Margherita, her beloved husband and many cats, to live in several countries: France, Netherlands, United States and then Italy again.
She was a full professor of Astronomy at the University of Trieste (1964–92) and served for several years as the first woman director of the observatory located in the same city, which, under her leadership, became one of the most prestigious research centres in Italy. Margherita was involved in several projects with ESA and NASA, with a focus on stellar spectroscopy and evolution.
She was always active in disseminating science to the general public (wrote several books; founded specialty magazines) and often appeared on TV to explain new findings in physics and astronomy.
For a “Free Science in a Free State”
Margherita was also aware that science is political. We can see it especially well now: we live in a historical moment where we can clearly see that countries that respect science have put in place more informed and sensible undertakings to face the pandemic.
She was known for her adamant campaigns for civil rights. I think that perhaps she felt compelled to speak out because she was a witness of how nazism and fascism tried to back discriminatory and racist laws with pseudoscientific arguments. She publicly advocated for laws in favour of gay rights, abortion, euthanasia, and criticised the Roman Catholic Church for its antiscientific outlooks.
Margherita was awarded a Gold Medal of the Italian Order of Merit for Culture and Art (1998) and Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic (2012).
She died in Trieste in 2013.
“You know what annoys me? When they treat me like the Holy Mary, but I’m just a woman.
[They treat me] Like if I were a saint, a relic: they want to touch me, kiss me, they thank me for the most diverse reasons. I think I did nothing extraordinary to deserve this care or admiration. I had a serious job, have done honest work, no razzmatazz. I just placed my stone in the mosaic of Science, pursuing the Truth. Saying the Truth.”
Translated from this interview by F. Taddia for La Stampa
1922 Born in Florence
1945 Graduates in Physics at the University of Florence
1964–1992 Full Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Trieste
1964–1987 Head of Triests’s Astronomical Observatory
1998 Gold Medal of the Italian Order of Merit for Culture and Art
2012 Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic
2013 Dies in Trieste
REFs / If you want to know more:
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About the author and artist
DR. ELEONORA ADAMI
Content editor and contributing artist
Women in Science, Sci-Illustrate Stories
Eleonora is a proud descendant of ancient Romans. Besides that, she is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Duke-NUS in Singapore, working in the cardiovascular and metabolic diseases area. She has a biotechnology (BSc) and functional genomics (MSc) background, and has obtained her PhD in molecular biology and genetics in Germany before going to the far east.
Eleonora thinks of herself as a carrier pigeon, always on the go, trying to find new adventures and challenges. Ok, maybe pigeons are not very adventurous, but they were once useful to deliver important messages. One of the messages she likes to bring across is that we need more art in scientific practices. Creative thinking benefits both disciplines.
A passion for illustration has always accompanied her and percolates in her scientific work. She started the collaboration with the Sci-Illustrate team after attending their course on scientific illustration.
About this series:
Not enough can be said about the amazing Women in Science who did and continue to do their part in moving the world forward.
Every month, through the artwork & words of the Sci-Illustrate team, we will bring to you profiles of women who touched our hearts (and brains) with their scientific works, and of many more who currently hold the flag high in their own fields!
-Dr. Radhika Patnala, Series Director