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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Meet Hypatia, the ancient mathematician who helped preserve seminal texts | Massive Science

The mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher Hypatia is considered the first known female mathematician and one of the “last great thinkers of Alexandria, the sophisticated Ancient Egyptian city.

Brianna Bibel, Biochemistry at Cold Spring Harbor  Laboratory reports, Her dramatic death often overshadows her epic life, but it shouldn’t.

Photo: Matteo Farinella

Why the last? Tension between religious and secular factions seeking control over the city boiled over in the early 400s, leading to her violent murder and turning her into a martyr for scientists, pagans, and atheists.

Hypatia’s death is much better recorded than her life - historians aren’t even sure when she was born (sometime around 350 CE). But there is plenty of evidence that Hypatia was a tremendous scholar.

If you wanted to learn math and astronomy in Alexandria, it helped if your dad was Theon, the last known member of Alexandria’s museum (not a museum in the sense we use the word now but more of a “university”). Theon taught Hypatia and sought her help with some of his commentaries - republications of someone else’s work with notes interpreting and explaining various parts. Commentaries such as these played an important role in preserving and advancing ancient Greek works at a time when such works were seen by many as “pagan” and opposed to Christian ideals. Many historians believe that at least one of the commentaries attributed to her father, the third book of Theon’s version of Ptolemy’s Almagest, an astronomical text used widely until the 16th century, was actually written by Hypatia...

Hypatia was a master networker - she had an “in” with many powerful figures in the ancient world, including the governor of Alexandria, Orestes. This popularity likely spawned jealousy in archbishop Cyril, already in a foul mood due to a feud with Orestes over control of the city. Orestes was a Christian, but he didn’t think the Christian Church should encroach on “civil government.” Cyril, on the other hand, wanted the church to have more control in secular affairs. The argument led to Cyril’s monks trying to assassinate Orestes, but they only succeeded at putting Orestes on high alert. But they didn’t have to look far for an easier target - Hypatia regularly traveled around, giving public lectures proudly espousing “pagan” views.

Source: Massive Science