Biography of Miriani Pastoriza, famous for her great discoveries in extragalactic astronomy. She was the first woman at the National University of Córdoba to graduate with a degree in astronomy.
This brilliant astronomer made history in Argentine astronomy. She is a professor of astronomy at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, and is a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.
Childhood and family of Miriani Pastoriza
Miriani Pastoriza was born in 1939, in Santiago del Estero, Argentina. This city is the capital of the province of the same name.
She was the youngest of four sisters. Her father passed away when she was four years old.
In the summer of 1947, the Pastoriza family lived in Loreto, one of the towns near Santiago del Estero.
At night, the heat was tremendous, with temperatures reaching 45 degrees.
Without air conditioning and without fans, the mother took the five beds out to the gallery of the house, to escape the confinement of the rooms.
With the people in the dark, Miriani could not close her eyes looking at the stars, which in that area of the southern hemisphere shine abundantly and wonderful.
At the age of eight, Miriani Pastoriza knew the names of many stars and pointed them out to her sisters. See there, that is the Southern Cross; Alpha and Beta of the Centaur. She kept whispering without stopping and not realizing that her sisters were no longer listening to her because they had fallen asleep.
The children’s magazine preferred by Miriani Pastoriza was “Mundo infantil”, which had a sheet dedicated to physics and explained what the atom was and also the planetary system.
Formation of Miriani Pastoriza
Although she completed primary school with excellent results, and was almost finishing high school, Miriani was very clear that she would study astronomy at the university.
At that time the only place where you could study astronomy was at the University of Buenos Aires.
That city was far away, and the costs would have been too high for her widowed mother. This mother’s income was not enough to pay for these studies.
Fortunately, when Miriani was in the fourth year, the “Institute of Mathematics, Astronomy and Physics” was created at the University of Córdoba.
It was the providential opportunity for Miriani: it was no longer 1,000 kilometers, it was only 430 km. Her older sister was already working as a teacher and would help her with money.
So Miriani Pastoriza was able to start realizing her dream at the University of Córdoba.
In the first mathematics classes, when the teacher started talking about sine, cosine, trigonometry, Miriani did not understand anything. The level of knowledge imparted in her town was much lower than that of its peers.
But she, in addition to ability, she had a lot of willpower and a desire to learn. With a friend from Santiago and a boy from Córdoba, they began to study together, determined to pass the exams.
In 1965, she graduated and received with pride the Bachelor of Astronomy from the National University of Córdoba.
This year 1965 marked a turning point in her life. She was the first woman at the National University of Córdoba to graduate with a degree in astronomy.
Beginning of the professional life of Miriana Pastoriza
Miriani Pastoriza’s professional career is strongly linked to that of the prestigious Argentine astronomer, José Luis Sérsic (1933-1993).
José Luis Sérsic was the thesis director of Miriani Pastoriza. They both had a very good rapport and shared a passion for astronomy.
However, in those years it was difficult for a woman to dedicate herself to night work in places where there were no other women.
It was necessary that J.L. Sérsic will process a special permit before the rector of the university so that Miriani Pastoriza could spend some nights at the Observatory in order to gather the data for her final work.
José Luis Sérsic Argentine astronomer, great teacher and known for his work on the morphology of galaxies. He was one of the pioneers in the study of objects located outside the Milky Way, in the Southern Hemisphere (Extragalactic astronomy).
In 1965 they published a paper on star formation in galaxies. The results of their information revolutionized that field of study and it is still an inescapable reference for current studies.
In 1968, Miriani obtained a scholarship to do an internship at the Stewart Observatory at the University of Arizona and another at the University of Texas, where she worked with one of the most important astronomers of the time.
For five years, guided by José Luis Sérsic, she was preparing for a doctorate in astronomy. In 1973, at the University of Córdoba, she obtained the title of Doctor of Astronomy. It was the second doctorate in the entire country obtained by a woman.
In those years, she began her career in university teaching, as Head of Practical Works at the “Córdoba Astronomical Observatory“.
Much later, in 1988, she had the opportunity to do a postdoctorate at the “Royal Greenwich Observatory” at the Space Telescope Institute, which operates the Hubble Space Telescope.
Miriani and Sérsic made a great discovery
Extragalactic astronomy is the study of objects outside the Milky Way. Since the beginning of time, including Galileo, Copernicus, Newton and Herschel, they had observed small spots in the sky as somewhat bright little clouds, but they were not stars.
Her mentor and boss, Edward Pickering, along with a co-worker, Edwin Hubble, supported by the hundreds of notebooks with meticulous notes that Henrietta Leavitt had made, made known to the world that there is an entire universe outside our Milky Way.
A galaxy is a collection of stars, gas clouds, planets, and cosmic dust. All these objects are gravitationally united in a more or less defined structure.
Until the mid-1960s, the nuclei of galaxies were thought to be composed only of old stars.
José Luis Sérsic and Miriani Pastoriza revolutionized that concept. Using the 1.54 meter telescope of the Bosque Alegre Astrophysical Station (belonging to the Córdoba Astronomical Observatory) they discovered that, in a high percentage of “a particular type of galaxy“, there are large regions of ionized gas and dust, where they are actively forming stars, and that these areas are distributed around the central region, in the nucleus of the galaxy.
They published their finding in an article titled “Peculiar Nuclei of Galaxies”, which produced an international impact of such magnitude that these types of galaxies were later called Sérsic-Pastoriza galaxies, or S-P galaxies.
In 1970, this time personally, Miriani Pastoriza made another discovery of great impact: she determined that the spectrum of the galaxy NGC 1566 is variable; something that until now had never been observed. Again, her study introduced a change in astronomy.
The spiral galaxy NGC 1566 is about 50 million light years away from Earth. It is characterized by having a very compact active galactic nucleus. The gas found in these regions moves at very high speeds, which allows us to suppose the existence of a very massive black hole in the central region.
That variability indicates that the core of a galaxy is constantly evolving and contains star formation. This activity, along with other phenomena, would mark the possible presence of supermassive black holes inside.
The surprise at this discovery was so great that most of his colleagues from Córdoba did not believe that this was possible and attributed it to an error in the observations.
Precisely because of this incredulity, this discovery of great relevance to extragalactic astronomy would only appear published five years later.
Miriani Pastoriza was forced into exile
On March 24, 1976, a military rebellion deposed the President of the Argentine Nation, María Estela Martínez de Perón.
In its place, a Military Government Board was established, which remained in power until December 1983.
The following month, in April 1976, Miriani Pastoriza was included in a list of allegedly dangerous people.
Therefore, the university authorities were forced to deprive her of her teaching position and could not be hired by any other university in the country.
Since she could not work at any university, Miriani moved to Santiago del Estero, where she made a living preparing Engineering students.
At the same time she was sending letters to ask for a job in other countries.
In 1978, her husband was released after a year and a half of kidnapping. Miriani went with him to Porto Alegre, in Brazil.
Miriani Pastoriza accepted the invitation of the director of the Institute of Physics of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, to lead the emerging research group in astrophysics.
The offer was generous and very timely, but she had to completely abandon her specialization in extragalactic astronomy.
Since she only had a small 50 cm telescope at her new job, she devoted herself to stellar astronomy.
With her new team, she published several articles that represented great contributions to the knowledge of the chemical evolution of the Milky Way.
In Brazil, she became one of the most recognized researchers worldwide, both for her contributions to science and for her commitment to training hundreds of scientists at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.
Miriani Pastoriza never lost her ties to the Córdoba Astronomical Observatory. She continued to collaborate scientifically with her former colleagues, and directed several doctoral theses for Cordovan students.
Pastoriza was a scientific advisor to many Brazilian astronomers who are now prominent international scientists.
Other activities of Miriani Pastoriza
Throughout her vast professional career, Miriani Pastoriza published many scientific articles that had wide circulation.
As a professor, she directed 15 doctoral theses and 17 master’s theses.
From 1997 to the present, Miriani Pastoriza has been in charge of the direction and administration of the “Physics Institute of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul“.
In 2007, she was named a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.
Since 2014, she is Professor Emeritus at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.
She has amply demonstrated that she is a dynamic woman with leadership qualities, as well as being an astronomer of the highest level and an exceptional teacher.
She reached the highest category for a researcher within the “Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Cientifico e Tecnológico”, in Brazil.
She is the representative of Brazil in the “International Scientific Committee of Gemini Telescopes“.
She also represents Brazil in the “International Directive Council of the SOAR Telescope“.
She belongs to the “Directive Council of the National Observatory of Rio de Janeiro”.
She was named a member of the “Board of Directors of the Sao Paulo National Astrophysics Laboratory“.
Honors received by Miriani Pastoriza
In 2010 the President of Brazil gave her the National Order of Scientific Merit.
Nor has the University of Córdoba been left behind in the deserved recognitions of its distinguished former student. On October 2018, she was named Doctor Honoris Causa.