Monday, June 12, 2017

SRPS Women in STEM: Margherita Hack - "Lady of the Stars"

Margherita Hack (12 June 1922 – 29 June 2013) was born in Florence on a street named "via delle Cento Stelle" or "street of a hundred stars." An appropriate beginning for the astrophysicist who would go on to be known as the "Lady of the Stars."

She excelled in school, but when it came time to take her graduation exams, they were canceled due to the outbreak of WWII. That didn't stop her education, though. She attended the University of Florence where she enrolled in classes and participated in track and field events, specializing in both the long jump and the high jump. Initially her goal had been to study literature, but her fascination with the stars led her to the field of physics. In 1945 she graduated having written a thesis on Cepheid variables -- pulsating stars.

As an astrophysicist she worked closely with scientists around the world researching stellar spectroscopy and radio astronomy, as well as with the general public to foster a better understanding of the importance of science. She took a teaching and research position at the University of Trieste, where she eventually served as the director of the Astrology Department. In 1964 she became the first female administrator at the Trieste Astronomical Observatory.

Over the course of her career, she was the author of more than 200 scientific papers, and even founded a magazine, L'Astronomia, as well as acting as director for Le Stelle, another magazine with a focus on popular science and astronomy. She was a popular figure on Italian television, where she discussed important scientific findings in a way the average non-scientist could understand. So popular, indeed, that she was nominated for regional elections in Lombardy, where she earned a seat in the provincial government. She gave up the seat to another politician so she could dedication her time to her research.

In probably the best way to honor an astrophysicist, an asteroid discovered in 1995 was named 8558 Hack in her honor.

After her death, in keeping with her dedication to astronomy and education, she left to the city of Trieste her remarkable personal library containing over 24000 books on astronomy.

You can read an interesting interview with her from 2011 where she talks about the importance of scientific research.

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