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Every year for the occasion of La Festa Della Donna (International Women’s Day) I like to write about an Italian woman whose life has been an inspiration to others. This year I’ve chosen renowned astronomer and physicist Margherita Hack.
Born in Firenze in 1922 of a Swiss father and Italian mother, Margherita Hack was an outspoken atheist, feminist, and left wing activist. She was also a vegetarian, as were both her parents, and wrote a book entitled Perché Sono Vegetariana (Why I’m Vegetarian). During her youth she excelled as an athlete, winning prizes at university championships in the long jump and high jump.
Hack studied physics at the Università di Firenze and after graduating in 1945 she began work at the astronomical observatory in Arcetri near Florence, moving to the Merate observatory near Milan in 1954. In 1964 she took up directorship of Trieste observatory, becoming the first female director of an astronomical observatory in Italy. Here, she worked on radio-astronomy, transforming the provincial Trieste observatory into an important international centre. She was also professor of astronomy at Trieste University from 1964 until 1992.
During her career she collaborated with many foreign universities and observatories, publishing over 250 original works in international journals. She married Aldo De Rosa in 1944, and the couple remained together until Margherita’s death separated them in 2013, 69 years later!
Personally, I believe that Margherita Hack’s greatest quality was the fact that she was a brilliant communicator. She was able to explain the most difficult and abstract scientific concepts in a way that made her audience feel that they had understood everything, as if they were part of the scientific community themselves. In fact, by the late Seventies terms such as buchi neri (black holes), la teoria del big bang (the big bang theory), l’espansione dell’universo (the expanding universe), and so on, were part of everyday vocabulary in Italy.
Whenever she appeared on TV, my family and I would be glued to the screen. And we weren’t alone! The morning after her broadcasts, science and physics teacher had to be completely up-to-date with the latest astronomical discoveries, because their students would be busy discussing what Margherita Hack had said the night before, and asking their teachers hundreds of complicated questions!
Like many young people, my cousin Anna Maria dreamt of following in Hack’s footsteps and becoming an astronomer. I, however, didn’t share that dream because despite being fascinated by the subject I was absolutely terrified by the concept of black holes and infinity. I remember that I used to lie awake at night trying to imagine what infinite space and time felt like, or dreaming that I was being sucked inside a black hole.
So I became an archaeologist instead!