Hypatia: mathematician, astronomer and philosopher


How many female scientists do you know of beyond Marie Curie, Jane Goodall and Rosalind Franklin?

Hypatia of Alexandra (approx. 370 – 415 A.D.) has been a favourite of mine since I was a girl. And it seems fitting given the time of the year and circumstances of her death that I mention her.

Hypatia is most certainly a strumpet of the highest order: she was a pagan, unmarried, taught at the Neoplatonist school of philosophy, dressed in the clothing of a teacher or scholar instead of women’s clothing and moved around freely in her own chariot. She also had significant political influence on Orestes, the Prefect of Alexandria. She wrote many books on mathematics and astronomy; about the motion of the planets, number theory, and designed astronomical equipment such as the astrolabe and the hydroscope. It is not surprising that these awesome attributes lead to her horrific demise.

The Patriarch Cyril, the Bishop of St. Mark and future saint, was determined to bring Christianity to Alexandria and rid the city of Jews and pagans. In March of 415, following fighting between the Jews and Christians which led to disagreement between Orestes and Cyril, Cyril incited a mob of Christian monks who dragged Hypatia from her chariot. She was stripped naked, beaten with broken pottery and the flesh stripped from her bones. She was then torn limb from limb and her remains burnt, some say, at the library in The Caesareum temple. Her students fled to Athens where the study of mathematics prospered. The school continued in Alexandria until the Arabs invaded in 642. Tragically the library of Alexandria was burned by the Arab conquerors and Hypatia’s works were destroyed.

Hypatia is often regarded as the defender of science and inquiry and free thought against the onslaught of religious dogmatism. We can argue over the historical details, but it makes for a bloody great story that given the current climate is relevant today.



4 responses to “Hypatia: mathematician, astronomer and philosopher

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