Birth Date: June 12, 1922
Date of Death: June 29, 2013 (aged 91)
Place of Birth: Florence, Kingdom of Italy
Place of Death: Trieste, Italy
Nationality: Italian
Occupation/Field of Study Italian astrophysicist, first woman in Italy with a chair in astronomy and to direct an astronomical observatory.

 

KEYWORDS: Epsilon Aurigae, Spectrum, International Ultraviolet Explorer, Ultraviolet.

SHE THOUGHT IT

In August 1955 Margherita Hack attended the assembly of the International Astronomical Union for the first time in her life. There she met Otto Struve, who invited her to work with him at the Astronomical Department at the University of California in Berkeley. During her stay in California, she did research on the bright star Epsilon Aurigae. Hack developed the hypothesis that Epsilon Aurigae is a “Be-star-like hot object at the centre of a large disk of occulting material”1 (p. 549). At the time this hypothesis was impossible to confirm, since “the space era had not yet begun”2 (p. 179, my translation). The hypothesis was confirmed in 1978, when the satellite International Ultraviolet Explorer was launched2 (p.343).

Back at the astronomical observatory in Merate, she started to work on a spectroscopic analysis of the Cepheid variable star FF Aquilae. When she completed, the manuscript of the work, she showed it to Zagar, the director of the observatory. He was supposed to read the manuscript and to send it to Memorie della Società Astronomica Italiana, the main Italian astronomical periodical. As Hack remembers in her autobiography, he never had the time to read it2 (p. 134). After more than a month, he decided to publish her work in the Atti della Società Scientifica Lombarda, a periodical of the Lombard Scientific Society. In her autobiography, Hack writes that “[s]ending [her] work to the Atti della Società Scientifica Lombarda meant to bury it, because only the members of the society will read it, and maybe not even them”2 (p. 135, my translation).

In 1958, she went back to Berkeley where she started working on a book about stellar spectroscopy with Struve. In addition to this research, she published three statistical papers on anomalous stars that are chemically different to the normal stars. This papers were “fundamental point with which we were able to contextualize the characteristics of this class of anomalous stars and to understand them better”2 (p.201, my translation). After the death of Struve in 1963, Hack finished the book Stellar Spectroscopy on her own and published it in two volumes in 1969 and 1970. The book quickly became a “classical reference textbook for the studies of stellar atmospheres”3 (p. 38).

 

BIOGRAPHY

Margherita Hack was born in 1922 in Florence. In the last year of high-school in 1940 she was suspended for 20 days because of her anti-fascist ideas2 (p.34). The suspension meant that she was not able to do the high-school exit exam in June. Since Italy went to war, however, the exams that year did not take place and everyone was declared mature in base of the grades received during the year2 (p.35).

In autumn 1940 she enrolled in the university. She chose literature at the Faculty of Arts in Florence, but the first class was for her “an hour of pointless chat in which I was not interested”2 (p.43, my translation). This experience, then, made her switch to the Faculty of Psychics in Florence.

In May 1941 she won the high and the long jump competition in the Littoriali, a national student competition organized during the Fascist regime. To participate in the competition, she had to take a loyalty oath to the regime. Her whole life she called this oath her “first grave compromise”2 (p. 47, my translation).

In her third year at the university, she attended her first astronomy class. In 1944 she  married Aldo de Rosa, a friend from her childhood. In the same month she proposed the thesis to the assistant professor Fracastoro. He gave her the idea to write a thesis about Cepheid variable, a class of variable stars. She then graduated in January 1945 with the grade 101/110.

In 1964, she was named full professor and holder of the chair of Astronomy at the University of Trieste. Simultaneously she was named director of the Astronomical Observatory of Trieste. At that time this position was automatically given to the holder of the chair of Astronomy. She was the first woman in Italy to hold such positions in the field4. At that time the observatory was “the last one in Italy”2 (p.266). Within a few years she led it to national and international success.

In 1980, Italy reformed the universities. Consequently, 
she founded the Department of Astronomy at the University of Trieste. Given the fact that she was the only full professor of the subject at that University, she was appointed head of the department.

 

SCIENTIFIC COLLABORATION AND RECOGNITION

Hack’s scientific career is marked by cooperations with the most important astronomers. The most important collaboration was doubtless the one with Otto Struve at Berkeley, as mentioned in the She Thought It section. She collaborated with many universities and institutes, among them the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton during the time when Robert Oppenheimer was its director, the Institut d’Astrophysique in Paris and the astronomical observatory in Utrecht. She was also a visiting scholar at the Ankara University.

Back in 1953, she received a six months research scholarship at the Institut d’Astrophysique in Paris. There she worked with Daniel Chalonge, a physicist who was doing research on the two-dimensional classification. During her stay, she used the collected data to do a research project about the absorption spectrum of some stars. The research was then published in the periodical Annales d’Astrophysique4.

Most of her research projects and papers were co-authored with other scientists. One of the most important paper she coauthored is a collaboration with George Mccluskey, John Hutchings, Yoji Kondo and Mirek Plavec, where they studied for the first time the multiple emission lines in interacting binaries in the ultraviolet. The results were published in two articles in the Astrophysical Journal in 1975 and 19762 (p. 316).

During the 1970s Margherita Hack had a prominent role in the Italian astronomical community. When the IUE International Ultraviolet Explorer was launched, she was on the front line to “make the Italian colleagues aware”2 (p. 334, my translation). As she jokingly recalls in her autobiography, “this promotional activity was a success. The proposals for programmes and the number of accepted programmes for the IUE by Italian researchers was so high that, playing with the acronym IUE, some European colleagues renamed it the Italian Ultraviolet Explorer”2 (p. 334, my translation).

During her scientific and academic career she was part of many working groups, committees or commissions in the ESA, NASA and in the International Astronomical Union, such as ESA-ESO Working Groups, NASA Working Group and the ESF Committee.

 

SHE SAID IT

“Astronomy taught us that we are not the centre of the universe, how it was believed for a long time and how someone wants us to believe it even today. We are just a minuscule planet around a very common star. We ourselves, intelligent beings, are the result of the stellar evolution, we are made by the stars’ material.”

Cited in Veronesi, Umberto (2010), Dell’amore e del dolore delle donne, Torino, Einaudi, 69.

 

“I even call it [The Higgs Boson] god because it is the particle which explains how the material of other particles developed and since those are the particles from which everything derived, this particle is really god.”

Cited in Limardo, Nicola (2014), Tecnologia Quantistica: applicata alla particella di dio con una nuova teorizzazione della “Legge del Tutto”, Anima Edizioni, 83.

 

PRIZES, DISTINCTIONS, HONORS

1980: Premio Linceo for the fields of Astronomy, Geodesy and Geophysics

First woman to win this award.

1987: Presidency of the Council of Ministers’ Culture Award

1994: Targa Giuseppe Piazzi for scientific research

1995: European Cortina Ulisse Prize for scientific popular publishing for the book Alla scoperta del sistema solare

1998: The asteroid 8558 Hack is named in her honor.

1998: Gold Medal of the Italian Order of Merit for Science and Culture

2011: Benemerenza Civica from the City of Trieste

Benemerenza Civica (The Civic Merit Award) is granted by an Italian municipality to a citizen, organization, association or entity that have enhanced the prestige of the city.

2012: Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic

 

BRIDGING GAPS

She never participated in any important artistic project, but she spent a lot of her time, especially after her retirement in 1997, teaching and explaining science, astronomy and astrophysics to the common audience, first and foremost to children. In 2011, she co-hosted a programme in the TV channel DeAKids titled Big Bang – In viaggio nello spazio con Margherita Hack5. From 1996 to 2013, she wrote a column called Pan di stelle in the italian newspaper L’Unità. In the column, she talked about the various things, from science to civil rights, to politics, gender equality, civil and LGBT rights. The archive of the newspaper is not online anymore, but there is a book of the same title of all of her posts and articles are published6.

The only really artistic project she took part in 2006, when she wrote the lyrics for a song for the italian singer Stefano Pais titled Questo è il mondo (This is the world), with which he entered the first selection phase for the 2007 Sanremo Festival7. The song was not selected.

 

INTERTEXTUAL MATERIALS

Hack, Margherita / Sandra Cavallini (authors and interpreters) (2004), Variazioni sul cielo, Teatro stabile del Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Play.

Catucci, Marina / Roberto Salinas (directors) (2011), Il secolo lungo, Interlinea film, DVD.

Ferri, Ivana (director) (2015), Margherita Hack – Una stella infinita, Laura Curino (actress), Teatro Ringhiera, Milan. Play.

L’arte è donna (2017), MAG Gallery, Milan, exhibition.

It’s an exhibition of the seven winners of the art contest La signora delle stelle 2016. The submitted art pieces had to be inspired by the figure of Margherita Hack.

BIBLIOGRAPHY (BY THE AUTHOR):

During her scientific career her scientific career she published many originals papers on international scientific journals, the NASA archive counts more than 400 papers. The list can be found under the following link: http://www.adsabs.harvard.edu. She also authored more than 20 monographies.

The following list is a selection of her publications.

“The Spectrum of Epsilon Aurigae” (1959), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 129, p.291.

“ The Spectrum of Upsilon Sagittarii” (1960), Memorie della Società Astronomia Italiana, Vol. 31, p.43.

La radioastronomia. Alla scoperta di un nuovo aspetto dell’universo (1960), Bari, Laterza.

Hack, Margherita / Otto Struve (1969), Stellar spectroscopy: normal stars, Trieste, Osservatorio astronomico.

Hack, Margherita / Otto Struve (1971), Stellar spectroscopy: peculiar stars, Trieste, Osservatorio astronomico.

Hack, Margherita / John Hutchings / Yoji Kondo / George McCluskey / Mirek Plavec (1975), The ultraviolet spectrum of beta Lyrae” (1975), Astrophysical Journal, vol. 198, p. 453.

L’universo violento della radio-astronomia (1983), Milano, Edizioni scientifiche e tecniche Mondadori.

Cosmogonie contemporanee. Le attuali teorie sull’origine dell’universo (1994), Trieste, Editoriale scienza.

Dal sistema solare ai confini dell’Universo (2009), Napoli, Liguori.

Libera scienza in libero stato (2010), Milano, Rizzoli.

FURTHER READING:

Lamberti, Corrado (2016), Viva Margherita. I valori, le passioni l’eredità di una grande maestra, Milano, Sperling & Kupfer.

Matteucci, Francesca (2014), “Hack, Margherita”, Dizionario biografico degli Italiani, <http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/margherita-hack_%28Dizionario-Biografico%29/>  (last accessed 15. May 2017)

Hack, Margherita (2000), L’amica delle stelle, Milano, Rizzoli.

 

WORKS CITED

  1. Hoard, Donald / Howell, Steve / Stencel, Robert (2010), “Taming the Invisible Monster: System Parameter Constraints for Epsilon Aurigae from the Far-Ultraviolet to the Mid-Infrared”, The Astrophysical Journal, Volume 714 (Issue 1).
  2. Hack, Margherita (2000), L’amica delle stelle, Milano, Rizzoli.
  3. Borgani, Stefano (2013), “Margherita Hack 1922-2013”, Astronomy & Geophysics, 54 (issue 5), 38.
  4. Matteucci, Francesca (2014), “Hack, Margherita”, Dizionario biografico degli Italiani, <http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/margherita-hack_%28Dizionario-Biografico%29/> (last accessed 15. May 2017)
  5. Hack, Margherita / Federico Taddia (creators and hosts) (2011), Big Bang – In viaggio nello spazio con Margherita Hack,
  6. Hack, Margherita (2014), Pan di stelle. Il mondo come io lo vedo. La scienza, la politica, la vita. Scritti 1996-2013, Milano, Sperling & Kupfer.
  7. Venegoni, Marinella (8 Dec. 2006), “L’astrofisica Margherita Hack paroliera per Sanremo”, La Stampa <http://www.lastampa.it/2006/12/08/blogs/on-the-road/l-astrofisica-margherita-hack-paroliera-per-sanremo-fe9GCEZyauWLbeqsXLI99I/pagina.html> (last accessed 15 May 2017).

 

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