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Hypatia of Alexandria – Part 1

Posted November 01, 2016 12:00 AM by amichelen

(Note: This is part 1 of a three series blog.)

I would like to write my first blog by introducing a woman, who, many years ago in Alexandria, excelled in philosophy and science, even surpassing many scientists and philosophers of the time. Being an educated woman in the fourth century was not a trivial matter. Hypatia, sometimes called Hypatia of Alexandria, was the daughter of the philosopher and mathematician Theon of Alexandria, and was born in the fourth century (around the year 370), a historic period during which scientists were debating about the position and role of the Earth in the Universe.

Hypatia is one of the first woman scientists that we know about. She was an important philosopher of the Neoplatonic school of Alexandria and made important contributions to astronomy and mathematics. Her father and teacher Theon was a professor at the great Library of Alexandria.

Hypathia Attacked by the Monks.
Howard Roberts (1873-77)

Hypatia’s contributions to mathematics and astronomy include collaborations with her father, who wrote extensive “commentaries” about the most important scientific books of his time. Theon studied, analyzed and edited the works of Ptolomy, in particular his book the Almagest. Theon wrote thirteen books of commentaries of the Almagest. The possible contribution of Hypatia is implied in the title of the third book of commentaries: “Commentary by Theon of Alexandria on Book III of Ptolemy's Almagest, edition revised by my daughter Hypatia, the philosopher."

Many sources like Filostorgio, Hesiquio of Alexandria, and Damascius – contemporaries – described the works and talent of Hypatia as superior to her father in scientific work.

In mathematics Theon and Hypatia produced a new version of Euclid’s Elements which has been the reference for all geometries until the 19th century. In addition, Hypatia alone wrote commentaries on the Arithmetica of Diophantus of Alexandria, one of her favorite mathematicians who is known as the father of algebra. Her book allowed Diophantus’ work to be known. Also, she wrote commentaries on the work of Apolonius of Perga who wrote the first treatise on conic sections that are important to studying celestial bodies, and Ptolemy’s works, in addition to her participation in her father’s work. Hypatia, according to her student Synesius, invented the astrolabe and maybe also the hydrometer, still in use today to measure relative densities of liquids.

Hypatia belonged to the Neoplatonist School – modeled after Plato’s Academy - which is based on Pythagorean ideas. In 400 she became the head of this school and taught the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus, and mathematics and astronomy to people from all over the world.

Plato was one of the philosophers who used the Pythagorean ideas as building blocks of his teaching at the Academy. According to Plato, mathematics and political sciences are the pivots of his philosophy. Ideas, for him, are more real than the material world that surrounds us. Hypatia inherited this line of thinking.

Following the Pythagorean principles of gender equality Hypatia’s classes accepted, under the same conditions, men and women; she never separated the students according to religion or gender. Her classes were models of complete ethnic, religious and gender diversity. This fact attracted intellectuals from all over the known world who came to Alexandria to study philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, ethics and religion under her mentoring.

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#1

Re: Hypatia of Alexandria – Part 1

11/02/2016 3:38 AM

I don't advocate gender based blogs, but the folk who run WoW blog might like a link/tag.

It's an interesting post, and Im glad you posted to 'general' so that it's read by more. Congratulations on a very good first entry. I feel a little shame faced at not having heard about Hypatia before.

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#3
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Re: Hypatia of Alexandria – Part 1

11/02/2016 10:56 AM

Glad you liked this post!

I agree, it is a shame that Hypatia is not well known, not even by the technical and scientific community. By writing about her i wanted to "spread the news."

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#2

Re: Hypatia of Alexandria – Part 1

11/02/2016 7:32 AM

A remarkable woman. It's truly a shame for all of us that we humans discouraged half our population from participating in philosophy and mathematics for so long. How far along could we be right now if we hadn't wasted half our intellectual resources for thousands of years?

I remember the first time I heard of the Platonic Theory of Forms. I definitely scoffed at the idea that somehow the realist and most fundamental aspect of the world are ideas. Yet here we are, 24 centuries later, debating whether or not the most fundamental aspect of the universe is information:

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/tangled-up-in-spacetime/

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#4
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Re: Hypatia of Alexandria – Part 1

11/02/2016 11:21 AM

Yes, indeed, Hypatia is a great scientist that happens to be a woman. I agree with you that we have been not only discouraging but intentionally precluding women from participating in scientific endeavors.

Not only this has happened in science, but even today we humans believe that there are "natural" stratifications where we can locate people.

Look, for example at the caste system in nowadays India, just to mention one case. Once you belong to a caste (by inheritance) it is very difficult to move socially.

Certainly I do not want to belong to the Dalit caste, the caste of the outcasts (the untouchables) ostracized street sweepers and cleaners.

In science we did the same to women for many centuries. As you say, not only we precluded them to participate in science and technology, but by doing so the human race "shot ourselves in the foot". Who knows how many more scientific theories could have been developed by allowing more than 50% of the population to participate in science, math and general technology!

The same can be said about India. Who knows what the Dalit could contribute to the progress of India!

I will talk about Plato later.

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#8
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Re: Hypatia of Alexandria – Part 1

11/04/2016 12:37 PM

Think you meant birth rather than inheritance?

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#9
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Re: Hypatia of Alexandria – Part 1

11/04/2016 1:22 PM

Yes, you are right . The discrimination is based on birth.

Thanks for the correction.

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#5

Re: Hypatia of Alexandria – Part 1

11/03/2016 10:25 AM

There's a historical drama film called Agora (2009) that stars Hypatia. It is perhaps not very historically accurate, but it was entertaining and introduced me to this notable scholar.

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#6
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Re: Hypatia of Alexandria – Part 1

11/03/2016 10:44 AM

Yes, Agora is a good film by the great Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar. You can see some scenes from this movie at this YouTube link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G4yj3uXS2uM

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#7

Re: Hypatia of Alexandria – Part 1

11/03/2016 4:05 PM

Excellent blog! Looking forward to the next installment.

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  Next in Blog: Hypatia of Alexandria – Part 2

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