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It is the first Argentine astronomer and a type of galaxy bears his name

Miriani Pastoriza revolutionized world astronomy with her studies. We talked with her about feminism, exile and extraterrestrial life.
Miriani Pastoriza
| 12 April, 2019 |

The nights at Villa San Martín Loreto – a small town in Santiago del Estero – were very hot, so Miriani’s mother took the beds to the gallery. They slept outside, under a tremendously starry sky. These nightclubs, intense and wonderful, sealed their pact with the stars. She learned and named constellations every night and her sisters sent her to sleep, but she became more and more interested in understanding what these bright objects were made of, her night ceiling.

Contrary to what happens with many children, that devotion was not in the resort of a childish hobby, but was increasing more and more.

“When the Russians sent the dog Laika into space, my schoolmates were horrified and I told them with all seriousness: I would have wanted to be that bitch”

It seemed that the desire was going to be truncated, because the closest place to study astronomy was La Plata, too far from his home province. But, wink of destiny, when he was in the fourth year he created the Institute of Mathematics, Astronomy and Physics (IMAF) of the University of Córdoba, which was 400 km from his town and there he went.

-How do you remember those years of college?

They were the best years of my life, first because I was able to satisfy a very large drive of knowledge, to deepen objectives and they were years of much comradeship with fellow students. With many Santiago residents who went to Córdoba, we formed a study group and yes, a party.

-During the career, did you feel inequality or prejudice for being a woman in the field of science?

Yes and no. When I entered IMAF, in the area of astronomy we were two or three women, but the second year they left. The regime was very demanding. The observatory where we were going to study the sky was in Bosque Alegre. The van climbed, left the astronomers for 4 or 5 days and then came back to find us. You had to stay living in a house in the mountains, without a telephone. The first time I was going to observe, my counselor had to request special permission from the rectory and the university council to allow me to go, because she was the first woman who was going to spend 4 or 5 days with astronomers and assistants. The only lady on the mountain was Doña Ramona, who cooked and was the wife of Callisto, the caretaker of the observatory.

But my classmates helped me a lot, really. I came with a totally different level of training. He came from the normal school of teachers, and some classmates had completed two years of engineering. Personally, I think that when you like something very much, you overcome difficulties.

-In 78 you had to go into exile in Brazil and start again, how was it to start over?

A challenge. When I arrived in Brazil there were 10 doctors in astronomy throughout the country. Although there were already observatories, they were from the 1800s. Astronomy was underdeveloped. That gave me the responsibility of staying to develop the astronomy department that at that time had only two professors. I accepted the challenge of guiding teachers and doctorates. Now, of those 10 doctors that were, there are more than 600 or 700.

-Is it true that in your doctoral thesis you discovered a type of galaxy that bears your name?

Yes. It was in my degree that we discovered that new, young stars are formed in the core of spiral galaxies. Until then it was believed that these nuclei were formed only by old stars. We surveyed all the bright galaxies in the southern hemisphere and found galaxies whose central region was not spherical. In my doctoral thesis I studied them in detail and we found that these regions were star-forming. It was a very important discovery that changed the notion about spiral galaxies. These galaxies began to be called “Sersic-pastoriza”, because all my works I published in collaboration with Dr. Sersic, who was my counselor.

You were the first woman to go up to Bosque Alegre, the first woman to receive you as an astronomer at the University of Córdoba, you actively work for the equal quota in science, how do you position yourself against feminism?

I believe that there is a social conditioning in women, in the model that is posed to women since she is a child. When you give a girl a doll to play and you give a boy something to build, you are saying what role the woman has to have in society, which is to be a housewife. Society thus conditions women, and she conditions herself. But nobody prevented me from moving on, not even the military coup.

To my daughter Ana, when I was 3 months old I took her to the mountain to watch, at that time the husbands didn’t take care of the children … I took her to the observatory and my classmates helped me, I went down from the telescope to eat. If the woman wants, she can, but you have to be very strong because they do not make your life easier, they are always testing you.

I work with the Latin American Association of Women Astronomers, with which, for example, we claim to have nurseries in the observatories. Today we have a program in Brazil called “Girls in science”, we go to schools and explain the role that women can play in science. There is the cartoon of the girl who has to be a model, pretty, and the girl who wants to be an engineer is never valued. It’s a complex struggle, I don’t think it’s men who keep you from moving on. There are many factors that combine to make that happen.

– I return to the observation about models in childhood. Do you think that more attention should be given to science in school education?

Yes, it is essential. To astronomy and science in general. If we want a country that develops, that goes ahead, it has to have scientists. Basic science is important because it is the pillar of everything else. Like philosophy, culture, education, they are things that cannot be eliminated from the school curriculum, as Brazil wants to do now. We are also in that fight there, because that would be a setback.

-For those who do not know, what is astronomy and what is it for on a daily basis?

Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences, it is closely related to the day-to-day life of individuals. It begins with the ancient peoples who studied the movement of the sun and the seasons, because it allowed them to know how to regulate the crops. Then, based on that, we begin to study the movement of the stars, this is classical astronomy. In practical life we would have no other way of marking time. 24 hours, how do they arise? They are defined by a subdivision of the time it takes for the earth to go around the sun completely. Today we have other elements that define time, but initially defined by the stars.

On the other hand, stars are machines to produce energy. What astrophysicists do is study that energy. Nuclear energy arises based on explaining how the sun can be millions of years producing the same amount of light. In the 19th century, that began to be studied and the whole study of how that energy was produced arises. From the study of that applied energy, we created the nuclear power plants.

Also, some astronomical instruments take you to the development of optics, to the study of movements, to be able to launch satellites. Without astronomy we would not have communication. It is fascinating. We all use things and we don’t know how they arise. We try to understand how the energies of the universe originate. And there are still many great questions

-After so many years of study, what is the greatest teaching about life that the study of heaven left you?

That you are never satisfied with what you know. You are learning, but at the same time more questions and more questions open up. When I was a girl I thought that studying astronomy I would know without a doubt what the origin of the universe was and how everything was formed, exactly. Now I realize that we have not yet reached a point of saying: this is the definitive model. There is the big bang, but related there are other theories that say there are parallel universes. The universe is full of a dark matter whose nature we do not know. The greatest experience that leaves you is that science is always a question that takes you forward.

In the celebrations for the centenary of the Astronomical Observatory of Córdoba, Pastoriza receives a reminder medal, from the president of the International Astronomical Union, Bent Stromgren. 1971.

Myths and astronomical truths

-You talked about parallel universes. Do you dare to confirm or deny some classic myths?


-Is there extraterrestrial life?

No doubt, but not in the form of a flying saucer or those gentlemen who are waiting for you on the route. There are life, there are millions of galaxies, why would we be the only place in the universe so privileged? if the laws of physics are fulfilled in all places of the universe, the laws of chemistry and biology must be governed equally

There is an entire area called astro-biology that studies the formation of complex molecules that exist in galaxies. Lately I was working on molecules that are carbon rings that bind through hydrogen and form large chains related to the origin of life. The idea is that these complex molecules are dragged, for example, by a meteorite and implanted in a “habitability zone”, This is how life originates. To be habitable, the planet does not have to be very far from the star that gives it light and heat, and it has to have an atmosphere. What yes, it is difficult to find these other systems, it may be that there are planetary systems of other stars, certainly distant stars. We may never reach them. They may not be at the same level as us, they may be at an incipient level, that life is just being formed. Or at a level so advanced that they cannot communicate or we still have no way of detecting them. But they exist, they exist. because there are already detected several planets that are in the habitability zone, which has conditions to develop life. Now, proven, to be told “there was found a plant, an animal”, that still does not exist.

-Then there is not much of truth in which the governments or organisms like the NASA hide those discoveries to us?

No, that is to believe or not to believe. Many things cannot be explained so we appeal to myths. I watched the sky from my 18 years to my 35 years, I spent entire nights observing by telescope. I saw satellites, comets, shooting stars, but I never saw something that I couldn’t explain scientifically, that couldn’t have a logical answer. I think there is a lot of imagination.

-In 69, Neil Armstrong arrived at the moon?

Of course. It is and at that time it was very easy to send a rocket to the moon. You just have to give it the necessary momentum, study the orbits. People invent, as now invents that you should not get vaccinated … and deny things well proven. The problem is that when they realized that the moon is not habitable, it is much more logical to try to get to Mars, where having water you can transform oxygen and create a life cycle. No doubt they arrived, I did not go but I believe them.


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