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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Throwback Fact: Hypatia of Alexandria

Of course we all know of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagorus… but what about female mathematicians in the ancient world? There weren’t many. In fact, the first woman mathematician about whom we have reasonably secure knowledge is Hypatia (circa 370 – 415 CE).

It is likely that the reason Hypatia became a skilled mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer is because she was exposed to science at an early age. Her father, Theon of Alexandria, was a distinguished professor of mathematics. Hypatia went on to teach mathematics at the same university as her father, and was always cited as a charismatic tutor by her students.

A depiction of Hypatia just before her death, by Charles William Mitchell
Hypatia is  unfortunately not remembered for any significant contributions to mathematics. Her works were all lost, though it is known that she created a commentary on Diophantus’s Arithmetica. The legends surrounding Hypatia stem from curiosity about her death. According to the limited sources available, Hypatia (a self-proclaimed pagan) drove a wedge between two political figures of Alexandria. She was blamed for increasing tensions and even riots between Christians and non-Christians as the church and state fought for power. Legends tell that Hypatia was brutally flayed and burned alive by Christian zealots in a church.

Hypatia’s legacy is so popular that it was adapted for screenplay in  the 2009 film Agora. While very little facts remain about her, it is important to remember Hypatia, the first woman in mathematics.

The Math Book by Clifford A. Pickover
The closing years of Greek mathematics by Jesse Osborn

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