Born at the corner of via Cento Stelle (hundred stars) in Florence, Margherita Hack was the first woman to lead an astronomical observatory in Italy. She is the most known Italian astrophysicist.
You have just turned 89. What is the biggest satisfaction you have had until now?
I don’t know what to say since I have had so many satisfactions with my job. Maybe when I won the chair of astronomy at the University of Trieste (1964). But then I have received many prizes and acknowledgments and right now I could not tell which one has given me the highest satisfaction. What I would say is that I have had many acknowledgments.
In your youth you have been long and high jump champion and afterwards you studied physics, activities both considered, especially then, not suitable for women.
No, it is not true. At the university we were five women and five men students. As far as sport is concerned, there was fascism then and under dictatorships sport is one of the things that are used the most for manoeuvring, for training young people, for making them more accommodating let’s say. Nevertheless the good thing is that sport was done at large scale, also in schools.
As for your physics studies, did you feel then that you were supported or rather hindered by the people around you?
My parents told me I had to do what I felt like the most and since I liked physics better than the other subjects it was natural for me to choose to do what I felt I was better at.
Therefore as a woman you did not feel hindered by then?
And afterwards did people around you make you feel somehow that as a woman you could not be able to do it?
We know a very small part of the universe (96% of it is mostly dark energy and matter, which means we do not know what it is made of, where it comes from and how it behaves). If one part of the astrophysicists holds that the main effort should be to discover what is unknown, another one, led among others by Simon White, director of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics (Germany), holds that it is a very difficult issue, that we can live without discovering it and that all the money spent to do it could be invested in less pharaonic projects. What do you think?
The purpose of science is to find out the world we live in and what we do not understand needs to be faced. Therefore, since today the main problem in astronomy is to understand what dark matter and energy are, I believe it is right to bet on them. On the other hand, it is not that clear whether there really is all that dark energy and matter, it could also be a false problem due to some measurement mistakes, so I think it is important to make research in this field.
Therefore you believe it is worth to invest so much money in it even at other projects’ expense?
Money has to be invested in research projects we know less about, where there is still something to discover and since in astronomy these aspects are the most obscure, yes I think it is worth.
I heard you saying that celestial bodies not only emit light but also sounds.
They emit radio waves. Celestial bodies emit all the radiations of the electromagnetic spectrum, which go from the gamma radiations to X rays and radio waves. What we perceive as light are certain waves whose length is between 0.4 and one micron. What we perceive as sounds are wave lengths between some decimeters and some meters of wave lengths but they all have the same nature.
What does its ‘voice’ tell us about the stars?
It gives us information on the physical nature of stars and other celestial bodies.
In ‘Libera scienza in libero stato’ (free science in free state), you attack those you consider responsible for the scientific (and civil) decline of Italy: the State and the Church. Can you explain to me how they are responsible for it?
The Church minds its own business. It is up to the government, which should be lay, to set the conditions so that people can study more, better and that everyone can do it, giving young people the chance of employ themselves in the fields they studied for. The Church obstructs research for religious prejudices.
What does it obstruct for instance?
For instance the law 40 on assisted fecundation where it is forbidden to use embryos because these are supposed to have a soul while it is well known that the research on embryonic stem cells can allow to cure many diseases and brings extraordinary results in medicine. Therefore if the Church bans it because of its dogma and preconceptions , well, it is free to do it, it is the government the one who should not yield to it.
Among others, your activity in favour of homosexual couples’ civil rights and legal acknowledgement is well-known. Do you think the male chauvinism and homophobia Italy has given many proves of lately are the last aftermaths of the past or are they phenomenon that present new connotations?
Well, they are a sign of big ignorance. I do not see a worsening with respect to the past, on the contrary perhaps there is an improvement since laws today recognize the same rights to men and women, the constitution gives the same rights to all citizens and the household composition is very different from the pre-war one. Homophobia is a big sign of ignorance because the tendency is always to attack and despise diversity while we should all be equal before the law.
As for the exploitation of the female body, has it always been like this, as far as you remember, or is it something new?
Well, it is exactly the consequence of the new commercial televisions and it is something new.
You are one of the very few women referents in Italy. In your opinion, why are you so few?
We are not that few. For example the president of Confindustria, Emma Marcegaglia, the general secretary of the CGIL union, Susanna Camusso. There are many others in different fields…
But one thing is what exists and another what is given visibilty to and the women referents in Italy really are few. Don’t you think so?
Indeed they are still less than men but there are quite a lot and it seems to me that it depends also on women to demand visibility and to impose themselves in society.
Sometimes, though, it happens that if one is in a position of vulnerabilty it is harder to demand one’s rights, isn’t it?But it is exactly those who have less rights that have to fight to have them. No one offers them, therefore women have to be hard-fighting and pretend what the constitution assigns them.
Do you feel this is how it worked for you?
I have never had problems, I have always been a fighter and I have never been pushed around.
Does it still happen that you feel you are not given the same credibility or legitimacy as if you were a man?
No, I would say it has never happened to me.
How many cats do you have?
Now I have only got four and a dog.
So, you have four cats, you are atheist, you have never followed the aesthetic norms expected for women and now you even use a walking stick. Some centuries ago you would have already gone to the stake, wouldn’t you?(Laughs). Of course, at Galileo’s times indeed.
Why didn’t you have children?
I have never desired them, I do not have this vocation.
So you believe this is a vocation?
Well, there are those who like them and those who do not know what to do with them.
Talking about the energetic issues a lot has been said about your position on nuclear energy. Exactly to clarify it you have recently published an article on the Italian magazine MicroMega where you say no to the construction of nuclear plants today in Italy (as the majority of the Italian citizens have later expressed in this month’s referendum) but yes to the research on nuclear energy.
Of course, research has to continue because nuclear energy will be necessary and safer means need to be found.
Why will it be necessary?
There is an increasing need for energy and the renewable ones are not sufficient for the future requirements.
Where would we get the uranium? This is a real problems as until now wars have been taking place in Africa to get it.
Other fuels with a shorter life and therefore less dangerous slags are now being searched, as well as fusion nuclear plants, which do not leave slags and where nuclear reactions are similar to those that happen in the stars. Then there are other kinds of renewable energies that have to be exploited, for instance the ones coming from tides. Research needs to continue in all the fields and I am afraid that voting against nuclear energy might completely stop research activities, just as it happened after Chernobyl .
But who funds research today in Italy?
It is underfunded. The Italians have the main expert on nuclear energy, the nobel prize Carlo Rubbia, who works in Spain.
Why do you say no to nuclear plants today in Italy?
The Italian country itself is not suitable enough. First of all it is at sismic risk and overpopulated but then I see the biggest danger just in Italian people. It has been seen in the case of l’Aquila, where under the cement there was sand, where they forgot to put a pylon at the students’ hall of residence. The lack of reliability, the mafia infiltrations in all big companies, the difficulty also in disposing of Naples’ trash that comes to the absurdity of paying Germany to get rid of our trash and then this gets its cities heating out of it, something that we could do ourselves.
How come you have decided to stay in Italy?
For many reasons. When I went to work to the US I liked it there, but I already had a chair in Italy, my parents were getting old and then I preferred to live in Europe.
What aspirations do you still want to achieve?
I want to finish what I am currently doing. I am writing several books, I hope I can finish them and that I have the time to work with a certain calmness and a discrete health.
What are you working on right now?
I am writing two books, “La mia vita in bicicletta” (My life on bicycle) and “Perché sono vegetariana” (Why I am a vegetarian).
Going back to the first question, is there any other satisfaction, or a particular moment that you want to share with us?
I don’t know, I have been lucky enough in my life. I have had a family that has left me complete freedom, a love mate who has always encouraged me in my work, I succeeded well in it. All in all my life has been quite happy.
There is not much to complain for, is there?
Not at all!
This interview was also published in the news agency Youris