Hypatia of Alexandria
Hypatia of Alexandria; born between AD 350 and 370 – 415) was a Greek scholar from Alexandria in Egypt,considered the first notable woman in mathematics, who also taught philosophy and astronomy.She lived in Roman Egypt, and was brutally killed by a Christian mob who blamed her for religious turmoil. She has been hailed as a “valiant defender of science against religion”, and some suggest that her murder marked the end of the Hellenistic Age.
A Neoplatonist philosopher, she followed the school characterized by the 3rd century thinker Plotinus, and discouraged mysticism while encouraging logical and mathematical studies.
Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, who was her teacher and the last known mathematician associated with the museum of Alexandria. She traveled to both Athens and Italy to study,before becoming head of the Platonist school at Alexandria in approximately AD 400.According to the Byzantine “Suda”, she worked as teacher of philosophy, teaching the works of Plato and Aristotle. It is believed that there were both Christians and foreigners among her students.
Hypatia maintained correspondence with her former pupil Bishop of Ptolomais Synesius of Cyrene. Together with the references by Damascius, these are the only writings with descriptions or information from her pupils that survive.
The contemporary Christian historiographer Socrates Scholasticus described her in his Ecclesiastical History:
There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.
Many of the works commonly attributed to Hypatia are believed to have been collaborative works with her father, Theon Alexandricus; this kind of auctorial uncertainty being typical for the situation of feminine philosophy in Antiquity.
A partial list of specific accomplishments:
A commentary on the 13-volume Arithmetica by Diophantus.
A commentary on the Conics of Apollonius.
Edited the existing version of Ptolemy’s Almagest.
Edited her father’s commentary on Euclid’s Elements
She wrote a text “The Astronomical Canon.”
Her contributions to science are reputed to include the charting of celestial bodies and the invention of the hydrometer, used to determine the relative density and gravity of liquids.
Her pupil Synesius, bishop of Cyrene, wrote a letter defending her as the inventor of the astrolabe, although earlier astrolabes predate Hypatia’s model by at least a century – and her father had gained fame for his treatise on the subject.
Carl Sagan has a good piece on her in an episode of Cosmos, which is where I first learned about her.
Hypatia of Alexandria