You’ve heard of Carl Sagan, right? Well, get ready to meet Margherita Hack. She made science cool in and out of the classroom.
Italy’s “Lady of the Stars” was an astrophysicist specialized in stellar spectroscopy. Though out-of-this-world brilliant, she stayed forever down-to-earth, dedicated to communicating her scientific findings, in plain, understandable, everyday terms. As a result, she became one of her country’s first “popular scientists” and a beloved cultural icon. Her accomplishments are all the more notable because astrophysics was then, as now, a male-dominated field.
Yet, she remains largely unknown to the international public.
Margherita entered the University of Florence, like most women in the early 1940s, as a student of literature. But her passion was astrophysics. Her parents did not try to stop her.
She launched her career in 1945, as WWII was drawing to a close. For the next 20 years, she wrote hundreds of papers for scientific journals worldwide, distinguishing herself as a scientist of repute. Simultaneously, she strove to communicate the most complicated science in the clearest of terms. With the publication of I'll Tell You About Astronomy and So Speak the Stars, Margherita Hack made science cool in and out of the classroom.
Throughout these years, Margherita was a woman among men. That changed in 1964, when she became the first woman in history to run the Trieste Astronomical Observatory. She held the role until 1987, bringing the institution to international fame.
But it wasn’t all about science and the stars for Margherita Hack.
In the 2nd half of the 20th century, as Italy was digging out of its fascist past, Margherita adopted a modern point of view. 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 called out the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, which she felt did not always uphold the ethics it taught. She believed in moving beyond mere tolerance, for example, promoting respect for individual lifestyle choices. In this way, she became an outspoken advocate for civil rights, gay rights, vegetarianism, and rational thinking.
Margherita Hack made astounding contributions to both science and social justice. She broke multiple barriers as a woman, paving the way for others to do the same. She won many awards before she died this day in 2013, living to receive the greatest honor any astrophysicist could hope for in 1995: an asteroid named 8558 Hack.