Biography of Silvia Torres Mexican astronomer

Silvia Torres astronomer Silvia Torres Castilleja was the first Mexican woman to obtain a doctorate in astronomy. Credit: web astroscu.unam.mx

Silvia Torres Castilleja was the first Mexican woman to obtain a doctorate in astronomy.

She is one of the most internationally recognized Mexican scientists for her research on interstellar matter.

Childhood of Silvia Torres future astronomer

Silvia Torres Castilleja was born in 1940, in Mexico City, Federal District.

When she was in high school, a teacher encouraged her to take an interest in science. She instilled in her students ideas like the following:

  • It was an area where few women have excelled so far. There have always been women with great talent and ability.
  • If women are marginalized from science, the intellectual contribution of half the population is wasted.

Silvia Torres took good note of these ideas.

Mexico city
Avenida Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City. Credit: web verne.elpais.com

Studies and early works of Silvia Torres

At 18 years of age she began to study Physics at the Faculty of Sciences of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

That was the exact moment when she started her career as an astronomer: in 1958.

The Astrophysics course that was taught at the Faculty was attended by just four students: two men and two women. This reveals how unknown this branch of science was in Mexico.

In 1959 Silvia Torres used the first computer that arrived in Mexico. It was one of 2,000 IBM-650 computers that were produced from the year 1954 through 1960.

The IBM-650 was enormous in size and needed a fully refrigerated room so that the circuits did not overheat.

Silvia Torres started as an astronomer in Mexico

Shortly after completing that course, Silvia Torres worked as a research assistant at the National Astronomical Observatory of Mexico.

Milky Way
Auto portrait of the astronomer Alan Fitzsimmons, on May 13, 2013. Credit: ESO

The very young Silvia was already captivated by astronomy and had decided to get a doctorate.

Silvia Torres decided to go to the USA and improve her training

She soon found out that almost all the most prestigious universities were in the United States.

In addition, they told her that in the upper grades, they only admitted men.

Silvia tried to enroll at Caltech. She had a chance of being accepted there because her husband, Manuel Peimbert, also wanted to study astronomy. She could attend as his wife.

However, instead of choosing Caltech, Silvia Torres arranged the granting of a scholarship to study at the University of California, Berkeley, which was a mixed one. There she could study for a doctorate in astronomy.

During her graduate studies, she had two professors who particularly impacted her: Louis Henyey for his generosity and self-discipline in research; and George Wallerstein for his keen interest in knowledge.

Furthermore, Professor Wallerstein encouraged young students to start conducting research from the earliest stages of their studies.

Silvia Torres first Mexican PhD in astronomy

Shortly before the man set foot on the Moon, Silvia Torres Castilleja became the first Mexican woman to obtain a doctorate in astronomy.

The first Spanish doctor in astronomy was Antonia Ferrín. The first Chilean doctor of astronomy was María Teresa Ruiz. Silvia Torres was part of this first group of women who struggled to demonstrate that they could get everything they wanted.

Silvia Torres’ first works in Mexico

Upon her return to Mexico, Silvia Torres devoted herself to studying the chemical composition of hot gases in space.

University Mexico
The Autonomous University of Mexico is one of the 100 best universities in the world. Credit: web sololista.net

Although she received a lot of support from her family, she was raised in a very traditional environment. Therefore, her decision for astronomy required a special courage from her.

Women were not expected to have a career, so caring for their two children while continuing their scientific careers was challenging.

Silvia Torres’s contributions to astronomy

Silvia Torres’s valuable contributions to astronomy occurred in two areas:

  • a) in the “theoretical study” and
  • b) in the “observational” field of interstellar matter.

Her investigations have contributed to the advancement of knowledge of the transformations that gas has undergone in galaxies, in the successive stages of the generations of stars.

Galaxia NGC 7331
Galaxy NGC 7331. Image obtained by the OSIRIS team and treated by Daniel López

In those same years, Beatrice Tinsley, a British astronomer, was totally dedicated to the study of galaxies.

Silvia Torres’s work has focused on determining the physical conditions and chemical composition of planetary nebulae and HI regions.

Planetary nebulae are objects that result in the final stages of intermediate mass star evolution.

These nebulae have a hot central star that makes the surrounding gas glow.

Silvia Torres’s work provided important data on the star formation conditions generated by these objects, and on the processes that occurred inside these stars.

HIs are regions where hot stars with masses greater than 15 times the mass of our Sun have formed a few million years ago. They also illuminate the gas near them.

The results of her observations helped determine physical conditions and the composition of the gas.

This provided significant indications for theories of chemical evolution of the Milky Way and other galaxies; also for the understanding of the Universe as a whole.

Silvia Torres pioneer in using satellites in her work

Silvia Torres was a “pioneer” in the use of satellites to carry out investigations. She made important observations with the “International Ultraviolet Explorer” and with the Hubble Space Telescope.

That a Mexican woman could have used satellites, demonstrates the high prestige of Silvia Torres in the scientific field.

On hundreds of occasions, specialized magazines have referred to their research.

In the study of the Greater Magellanic Cloud, she was proposed to determine the abundance of helium in the early times, when the Universe began expansion.

Magellanic Cloud
The Great Magellanic Cloud was one of the wonders that Hernando de Magallanes discovered when he circumnavigated Earth. Credit: web observatorio.info

Silvia Torres is an excellent scientific disseminator

In addition to research, Dr. Silvia Torres has dedicated a great effort to the publication of scientific journals, to the promotion of institutional development, to the encouragement of graduate studies in astronomy, and to the popularization of science.

In 1974 Silvia Torres began to collaborate as editor of the “Mexican Magazine of Astronomy and Astrophysics“. She did this until 1998.

She has participated as editor in several international scientific magazines.

Acknowledgments received by Silvia Torres

  • Guillaume Bude Medal, from the College de France (1974).
  • Academic Medal of the Mexican Physics Society (1983)
  • National University of Mexico Award.
  • UNAM Exact Sciences Award, National Autonomous University of Mexico (1996).
  • Emeritus Researcher, Institute of Astronomy of UNAM (2000).
  • Heberto Castillo Medal from the Institute of Science and Technology of the Federal District.
  • National Prize for Sciences and Arts (2007).
  • Researcher emeritus at UNAM (2007).
  • Researcher emeritus of the National System of Researchers (2007).
  • Medal of Merit in Sciences, awarded by the Legislative Assembly of Mexico City (2016).
  • National Science Award, Mexican Government (2007).
  • Medal of the Academy of Sciences of the Developing World (2010).

In early 2011, she won the L’Oréal-Unesco Prize awarded by the United Nations Organization in the category of “Women of Science”, due to her research on the chemical composition of planetary nebulae.

Orion Nebula
The Orion Nebula. Credit: Wikipedia

She married Manuel Peimbert, also fascinated with astronomy. Over time, they had 2 children: the son is an astronomer and the daughter is a biochemist. Both work in Mexico City.

Positions held by Silvia Torres

She was named director of the “Instituto de Astronomía de la UNAM“. She has followed in the footsteps of the Paris Pishmish doctor of astronomy, born in Turkey and nationalized Mexican.

Dr. Paris Pishmish played a very important role in the foundation and promotion of modern astronomy studies at UNAM.

Silvia Torres
Dr. Silvia Torres, director of the Institute of Astronomy. Credit: web oei.es/historia

Taking advantage of her prestige and the position she held as director of the “Institute of Astronomy of UNAM” she made public some of her ideas:

Science in Mexico has grown; the number of researchers, research centers, teams has increased but not at the rate that is required, that is where the problem is and we have to find out how to do it”.

Universities must participate in the dissemination of science and technology“.

We must recognize that science and technology go hand in hand and that the country needs to be industrialized“.

We have to support new scientists, open new schools, other universities because they have ambitions for better opportunities and we are not offering them to them, we are failing them“.

In 2009, Silvia Torres was named “titular member” of the “Mexican Culture Seminar“.

She has also been part of the “Pacific Astronomical Society” and the “American Astronomical Society”.

President of the International Astronomical Union

From 2003 to 2006, Silvia Torres held the position of vice president of the “International Astronomical Union” (IAU).

In 2012, Silvia Torres was chosen by the General Assembly of the “International Astronomical Union” to be the president of this organization, from 2015 to 2018.

The previous woman to hold the position was Catherine Cesarsky; it was during the 2006-2009 period.

On August 14, 2015, Silvia Torres Castilleja once again made history and filled Mexican women with pride.

Not only was she the first doctor of astronomy in Mexico, but she was the first Mexican to preside over the International Astronomical Union, an organization based in Paris that brings together more than 11,000 specialists from 90 countries.

For the Mexican scientist, the main task during the three years of her management has been the promotion of astronomical cooperation worldwide.

From her position as IAU President, Silvia Torres has pledged to further enhance Mexican research.

She wanted to spread the idea that it is important to show the scientific community that research is done in Mexico and that there are results.

Also, that there is a female presence in the scientific development of the country.

Silvia Torres
Silvia Torres in the acceptance of the Science Merit Medal, in 2015. Credit: Wikipedia

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