Margherita Hack, who died on 29 June at the age of 91, was an astrophysicist who explained her research in plain language for the public and who championed civil rights in her native Italy. She died in Trieste, where she had headed an astronomical observatory.
Hack headed the observatory in Trieste, the first woman to hold that post, from 1964 to 1987, and was a popular and frequent commentator in Italian media about discoveries in astronomy and physics. The current director of the observatory, Stefano Borgani, said she was one of the first astronomers to "have the intuition" that the future of astronomical observation lay in using space satellites.
An atheist who decried Vatican influence on politics, Hack helped fight a successful battle to legalise abortion in Italy, unsuccessfully lobbied for the right to euthanasia and championed gay rights. Among her victories was a campaign against construction of nuclear reactors in Italy. A vegetarian since childhood, she was also an advocate for animal protection and lived with eight cats and a dog.
Hack, an optimist with a cheerful disposition, studied the heavens in the firm belief that there is no afterlife. "I have no fear of death," she said in a television interview. "When there is death, I won't be here."
She liked to joke that the "first and last" time she was in a church was for her marriage to her fellow native Florentine Aldo De Rosa in 1944. She agreed to a church ceremony only because the groom's parents were very religious. Hack dressed simply in life, including her own wedding, when she wore an overcoat turned inside out for a bridal gown. She and her widower, 93, had no children.
Hack enrolled at the University of Florence as a student of literature, but after one class, switched to physics. By the early 1950s she was an astronomer at the Tuscan city's astronomical observatory. She was also an athlete, excelling in track. Specialising in the long jump and high jump from 1939 to 1943, winning national university championships and doing well in national championships.
She was active in left-wing politics, including most recently supporting the governor of southern Puglia, Nichi Vendola, one of Italy's few openly gay politicians.
`'With Margherita Hack's passing, we lose an authoritative voice in favor of civil rights and equality," said Fabrizio Marrazzo, a spokesman for a the gay advocacy group, Gay Centre. "More than once, Hack came out in favour of gay rights, civil unions and the dignity of gay families."
Italy's foreign minister, Emma Bonino, who as a leader of the tiny Radical Party helped fight battles to legalise divorce and abortion, said Hack was "an extraordinary figure. With her vanishes not only a great scientist but a free spirit, deeply intellectually honest."
President Giorgio Napolitano's condolence message hailed her as a "high-level personality in the world of scientific culture. At the same time, she represented a strong example of civic passion, leaving a noble fingerprint in public debate."