Margherita Hack was born into a family of scientists and engineers. She studied physics at university, where she met Enrico Fermi, one of the founders of quantum mechanics. After graduating, she worked in Italy and later moved to the United States, where she became a professor of astronomy at Cornell University. Her work focused on the study of stars and galaxies, particularly those containing neutron stars. She was awarded the Wolf Prize in Physics in 2010.
Margherita Hack was born in Florence, Italy, into a family of artists. Her father Roberto Hack was a bookkeeper of Protestant Swiss origins and her mother Maria Luisa Poggesa was a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts of Florence and a miniaturist. They joined the Italian Theosophical society, for which Roberto Hack became secretary for a while under the chairmanship of Countess Gamberini Cavallini. At the age of 14, she began training as an artist and took part in the national university contests, winning the long jump and the High Jump competitions. After graduating from high school, she studied Physics at the University of Florence, obtaining a degree in 1947 with a final mark of 101 out of 110 points. During the war, she continued to train as an athlete, playing basketball and competing in Track and Field athletics. In 1945, she married Aldo De Rosa, whom she had met at the Liceo Galileo Galilei. In 1946, she gave birth to a son, Lucio, who died shortly afterwards. On 20 July 1948, she gave birth to another child, Giulia, who survived. Her husband was killed in action in 1950.
In 1951, Hack began studying art history at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze (Academy of Fine Arts), but left after two years to become a full-time mother. She returned to the academy in 1958, this time as a student of sculpture, and obtained a diploma in 1960. From 1959 to 1961, she taught art history at the Istituto Superiore per le Scienze dell’Educazione e della Formazione Professionale (Institute for Higher Education and Professional Training). In 1962, she received a scholarship from the American Institute of Architects to study architecture in New York City. While there, she also attended Columbia University’s School of Architecture, receiving a Master of Science degree in 1963. Upon returning to Italy, she worked as a freelance architect until 1965, when she accepted a position as a lecturer in Astronomy at the University of Rome La Sapienza. She remained there until 1970, when she was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University.
In 1971, she published her first scientific paper, “The Origin of Neutron Stars”, in the journal Nature. This led to further research, including studies of pulsars, supernovae, black holes, and quasars. In 1973, she co-authored the book Cosmic Explosions: A Study of Star Formation with John Archibald Wheeler. In 1974, she helped found the International Association for Relativistic Astrophysics, serving as its president from 1975 to 1977. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1978. In 1981, she was awarded the Prix Italia by the Italian Ministry of Culture. In 1983, she founded the European Space Research Organization (ESRO) together with other scientists. In 1984, she was named a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. In 1985, she was made a Commander of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic. In 1986, she was given the title of Doctor Honoris Causa by the University of Bologna. In 1987, she was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President Ronald Reagan. In 1988, she was awarded the Gold Medal of the Astronomical Observatory of Trieste. In 1989, she was awarded the Premio Letterario Giuseppe Ungaretti by the Italian Minister of Cultural Heritage. In 1990, she was awarded the Prize of the Foundation for Scientific Progress.
Activities in science
Margherita Hack was born on the 8th of May 1936 in Rome. After graduating from high school, she enrolled in the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics at the University of Rome La Sapienza where she obtained her degree in 1961.
In 1962 she moved to the Observatory of Padua where she worked as assistant and later as researcher. From 1968 to 1972 she was Assistant Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Triest, while continuing her work as astronomer at the Padova Observatory.
From 1973 to 1976 she was Associate Professor of Astronomy at the University of Triesta. In 1977 she became Full Professor of Astronomy at Trieste, being appointed Director of the Institute of Space Sciences. In 1984 she was elected President of the International Commission for Optics of the European Space Agency.
She has received many awards and prizes for her scientific activities. Among others, she was awarded the Targa Giuseppi Piazzi prize in 1994 for the scientific research; the Cortina Ulisse prize in 1995 for the scientific dissemination; the Gold Medal of the National Academy of Science of Italy in 1996; the Silver Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1998; the Golden medal of the International Astronautical Federation in 1999; the gold medal of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in 2000; the silver medal of the IAU in 2001; the Gold medal of the American Astronomical Society in 2002; the Gold medal of NASA in 2004; the Gold medal of ESA in 2005; the Gold medal of AAAS in 2006; the gold medal of AIP in 2007; the Golden medal of INAF in 2008; the Gold medal of ASI in 2009; the Gold medal of EAA in 2010; the Gold medal of MPS in 2011; the Gold medal of SIAG in 2012; the Gold medal of IAC in 2013; the Gold medal of CSIC in 2014; the Gold medal of ANVUR in 2016; the Gold medal of CNES in 2017; the Gold medal of SSO in 2018; the Gold medal of ISSI in 2019.
Hack has published over 200 articles in international journals and numerous books both of popular science (for example: Il sole e la luna, I miei occhi che vedono il futuro) and university level (for example: Le stelle di Galileo).
Participation in social and political activities
– Hack was born in Rome in 1942. Her father was a diplomat and her mother was a biologist.
– At the age of 12, she met her future husband, Luciano Floridi, whom she married in 1966. They had three children together.
– In 1968, she graduated in mathematics from Sapienza University of Rome.
– During the 1970s, she worked in Italy and abroad as a mathematician and computer scientist.
– In 1975, she participated in the creation of the Italian Association of Women Mathematicians (AIMM), where she served as secretary general.
– From 1977 to 1980, she taught mathematics at the Università degli Studi di Roma La Sapienza.
– In 1981, she received her doctorate in mathematics from the same university.
Research support for nuclear energy
Margherita Hack, former secretary of the Italian Communist Party, opposed the construction of nuclear power plants in her country; she stated that “Italy cannot afford to build nuclear power plants”, adding that “nuclear research is necessary.” However, Hack supported the development of nuclear technology, stating that “Italy is not ready to manage nuclear power plants”. She added that “the use of nuclear energy is essential, especially to guarantee electricity supply”. In addition, she expressed her support for the scientific research carried out by the ITER project, a joint European Union–Japan venture aimed at developing fusion energy.
Hack died on April 21, 2018, aged 76.
Margherita Hack’s 99th Birthday
Today we celebrate the life and work of Margherita Hack, a scientist whose contributions to astronomy are too numerous to mention here. But what makes Hack truly unique among astronomers is her advocacy for women in science. As a young girl, she refused to play with dolls because she wanted to study stars. When she became a teacher, she taught science without regard for gender. And when she got her PhD, she became the first woman ever appointed to a faculty position at the University of Trieste.
Hack worked tirelessly to promote women in science, writing books, giving lectures, and speaking out against discrimination. Her passion for women in STEM fields is reflected in her name—the word “hack,” meaning “to break into something.”
In honor of Hack’s birthday today, let’s take a moment to reflect on how far women have come in the field of astronomy.