A woman in a man’s world, a pagan among Christians, history’s first female mathematician: Hypatia of Alexandria.
When Alexander the Great established his namesake city in 331 B.C., he also envisioned a museum, university, and library. At one time, the library housed more than half a million scrolls, but over centuries, fires and religious wars would decrease those numbers.
Cultural and religious diversity eventually turned to hostility. By 364 A.D., when the Roman Empire split, the city had become a battlefield between Pagans, Jews, and Christians.
Among the last scholars was a professor by the name of Theon. A mathematician and astronomer, he taught both sciences to his daughter. Hypatia became a scholar as well, collaborating with her father on commentaries and treaties, writing her own, and immersing herself in philosophy.
She established herself as a philosopher of the Neoplatonic school, founded upon Plato’s belief that all things emanated from One. Though these principles would be incorporated by her pupils into the teachings of Christianity – in the notion of the Holy Trinity – they were considered unacceptably non-religious by the clergy.
But Hypatia valued her freedom – of thought, of speech, to celibacy – more than her city’s socio-political norms.
She spoke her mind, and people listened. She was “exceedingly beautiful and fair of form…in speech articulate and logical, in her actions prudent and public-spirited, and the rest of the city gave her suitable welcome and accorded her special respect.“
Hypatia taught mathematics and philosophy at the Institute of Alexandria. She lectured on Plato and Aristotle, and Diophantus’ “Arithmetica.” She also built astrolabes and planispheres – instruments used in astronomy – and developed textbooks to explain complex mathematical concepts to her students.
Unfortunately, cruelly, Hypatia is better remembered by history for her death than her life and accomplishments. In 415 A.D., she was caught in the crossfire of two macro-societal clashes: the first between the Church and State, the second between Paganism and Christianity. Her transparent positions on both those issues made her an easy target.
One March morning, possibly incited by Patriarch Cyril of Egypt, a mob of zealots attacked her carriage, dragged her to a nearby church, stripped then tortured and murdered her in a horrific manner.
But Hypatia’s death must not be allowed to overshadow her life, her work, and the ideals she stood for: “intellectual values, rigorous mathematics, ascetic Neoplatonism, the crucial role of the mind, and…temperance and moderation in civic life.”
Hypatia remains, to this day, a model for women in science and maths, and more broadly, all who aspire for knowledge, free and independent thought.