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Margherita Hack, 91, astrophysicist

Italian astrophysicist Margherita Hack headed the observatory in Trieste from 1964 to 1987.

associated press/file 1996

Italian astrophysicist Margherita Hack headed the observatory in Trieste from 1964 to 1987.

ROME — Margherita Hack, an astrophysicist who explained her research on the stars in plain language for the public and who championed civil rights in her native Italy, died Saturday in the Adriatic Sea town of Trieste, where she had headed an astronomical observatory. She was 91.

President Giorgio Napolitano’s condolence message hailed her as a ‘‘high-level personality in the world of scientific culture.’’

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‘‘At the same time, she represented a strong example of civil passion, leaving a noble fingerprint in public debate and in the dialogue with citizens,’’ Napolitano said.

The Italian news agency ANSA quoted family friend Marinella Chirico as saying Ms. Hack died in a hospital after being treated for heart problems.

Ms. 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.

An atheist who decried Vatican influence on Italian politicians, Ms. Hack helped fight a successful battle to legalize abortion in Italy. She unsuccessfully lobbied for the right to euthanasia and also championed gay rights. Among her victories was a campaign against construction of nuclear reactors in Italy.

Ms. Hack, an optimist with a cheerful disposition, studied the heavens in the firm belief there was no afterlife. ‘‘I have no fear of death,’’ Ms. Hack once said in a television interview. ‘‘While we are here, death isn’t’’ with us.

Among the many Twitter comments about her passing was one from an admirer who wrote that Ms. Hack was ‘‘so great and nice that God will pretend not to exist so as not to upset her,’’ the Italian news agency LaPresse noted.

Ms. Hack leaves her husband, fellow native Florentine Aldo De Rosa, whom she married in 1944. The couple has no children.

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