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Astrophysicist and Italy's 'lady of the stars' dies

TURIN, ITALY - MAY 13: Margherita Hack attends during 2011 Turin International Book Fair on May 13, 2011 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Valerio Pennicin...
Margherita Hack at the 2011 Turin International Book Fair on May 13, 2011 in Turin, Italy.Valerio Pennicino / Getty Images

ROME — Astrophysicist Margherita Hack, a popular science writer, public intellectual and the first woman to lead an astronomical observatory in Italy, died on Saturday at the age of 91.

Known as the "lady of the stars," Hack's research contributed to the spectral classification of many groups of stars, and the asteroid 8558 Hack is named after her.

She introduced astrophysics to a broad Italian audience, from university textbooks to colorful tomes of astronomy for children, and was astronomy chair at the University of Trieste and director of the Trieste Astronomical Observatory from 1964 to 1987, the first woman to hold the position.

Hack was one of Italy's most visible scientists over her career and remained a grey-haired media presence into her 90s, often consulted for her assessment of the issues of the day from a wooden rocking chair in her book-lined Trieste home.

An outspoken atheist in a predominantly Catholic country, Hack was known for her opposition to the influence of religious beliefs over scientific research, and lobbied for legalized abortion, euthanasia, animal protection and gay rights.

One of her many books, "Why I am Vegetarian," published at the age of 89, outlined Hack's belief that there was no difference between human and animal pain and that eating meat damaged the environment, sparking debate in a country with a proud tradition of meatballs, beef pasta dishes and cured hams.

In December 2012 she told a reporter she had decided not to have a heart operation that could prolong her life, wryly commenting that she might as well save the Italian public health service the money, and saying she preferred to stay at home with her books and her husband of seven decades, Aldo De Rosa.

"I do not believe in the afterlife," she said, chuckling and animated, in her final television appearance in March. "When I die my particles will flutter about the terrestrial atmosphere."