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I am finally getting around to the earliest women recorded reliably to have worked in the sciences.  Hypatia was a mathematician and physicist at the nearly legendary Alexandrian Museum and Library and one of the most brilliant of the scholars who worked there. The loss of the Alexandrian Library is one of the great tragedies in history, but it did not happen all at once and the blame can be spread around from Julius Caesar to the Islamic invasion, with Christian fanatics in between.

It is not certain when Hypatia was born, but it appears to have been between 350 and 370 CE. She was the daughter of Theon of Alexandria, a well-known mathematician of the times. Alexandria, which was founded by Ptolemy I, one of Alexander of Macedon's generals, was a center of learning in the Hellenistic world and drew scholars from around the Mediterranean. Hypatia became a leading Neoplatonist philosopher after education in Athens and Italy and was made head of the Platonist school in Alexandria in 400 CE. Her reputation was such that in an age when women were still considered property she became a leader in mathematics and physics.  She taught anybody who wished to learn, regardless of beliefs. One of her students, who wrote of her with some reverence, was Synesius of Cyrene, who became the Christian Bishop of Ptolemais.  However the Museum, being a pagan temple, was closed in 391 by order of the Roman Emperor, Theodosius I. The Serapeum, which housed part of the library, was destroyed by his order. Hypatia continued as best she could in Alexandria, while controversy and instability raged around her.  

Hypatia became embroiled in the political intrigue prevalent in Alexandria at the time and at least in part because of her friendship with Orestes, prefect of Alexandria, who was involved in a feud with Cyril, the Christian bishop of Alexandria. Of course Hypatia was vilified as a practitioner of magical arts. Accounts differ, but at some point Hypatia was either abducted by a Christian mob or discovered in the street accidentally and either transported to a church where she was stripped of her clothing and most probably murdered, using roof tiles, or killed directly in the street by the mob.  Some accounts say she was dragged through the streets first and others say her flesh was removed from her while she was sill alive. In any case with her may have died the last philosophical school of classical Greece.

Hypatia was considered by the scholars of the time as a genius. Most modern historians of science believe that she was one of the most remarkable scientists and mathematicians of her age.  She edited her father's commentaries on the works of Euclid and produced her own commentaries on the conic system of Appolonius, as well as editing Ptolemy's Almagest (not the Ptolemy who founded Alexandria, but the astronomer).  According to a fictionalized account of her life in a recent movie called  "Agora" she may have been close to discovering the laws later ascribed to the astronomer Kepler, which were based on Appolonius' conics, and could possibly have  believed in a heliocentric solar system as envisioned by Aristarchus of Samos.  Unfortunately we will never know, as all of her works seem to have been destroyed and we are left with a partial list.  

The eventual loss of the Library of Alexandria, along with that of Pergamon (Mark Anthony was supposed to have plundered that library to help Cleopatra restore the Alexandrian Library) and Cordoba, and probably many others, was tragic.  We have no idea how much human knowledge was destroyed in the process, but we lack Hypatia's works, many original Greek plays, the historical works of the Emperor Claudius, and many others.  Only in the last 50 years or so has a manuscript come to light that might have been written by Hypatia, but this is not at all certain. One remaining treasure trove of texts transcribed into Arabic from the Middle Ages remains, the libraries of Timbuktu, recently overrun by the Taureg and the groups associated with the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, such as Ansar Dine.  As I write the French have sent troops into Mali to drive the Al-Qaeda allies out (the Taureg were apparently expelled by them). We can only hope that they have not damaged the ancient scrolls contained there and that it is possible that somewhere some of Hypatia's work is still in existence, either there or in some other location!

Literature References:

Deakin, M. B. A. 2007. Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr. Prometheus Books.

Internet Reference:

Hypatia Biography http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/...

Hypatia http://ancienthistory.about.com/...

Hypatia http://en.wikipedia.org/...

Library of Alexandria http://en.wikipedia.org/...

Taureg Rebellion http://en.wikipedia.org/...(2012)

DVD Reference:

Bressoud, D. M. 2008. The Queen of the Sciences: A History of Mathematics.  The Great Courses.  The Teaching Company.

Film Reference:

Agora http://en.wikipedia.org/...(film)  

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 04:08 PM PST.

Also republished by SciTech, History for Kossacks, Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter, Feminism, Pro-Feminism, Womanism: Feminist Issues, Ideas, & Activism, and Community Spotlight.

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