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Archive for November, 2011

Image of Hypatia

Hypatia, the Lady Philosopher of Alexandria, is best known for her gruesome murder at the hands of a mob in AD 415. Her martyrdom takes pride of place in the historical narrative of many groups including mathematicians and scientists. I’ve written extensively about my search for the “real” Hypatia and the politics surrounding her death. I’m still fascinated and set up a Google Alert on her name, so I can participate in online discussions. Mostly I get hits on her namesake philosophy magazine (they’re looking for a new editor), the digital archival materials software (recently released version 0.8.0) and the woman who blogs about her cat (Hypatia doesn’t like the new kittens.) About once or twice a month there will be a post from a student at some public Q&A site, “So I’m doing a paper on Hypatia. I heard she invented the hydroscope and helped her dad with his math book. What else did she do?”

I realized many people (not just students) are puzzled over Hypatia’s contributions to math and science. There’s a lot of magical thinking about her life and work. The movie Agora used a mythical search for heliocentrism (the sun as the center of the solar system vs. the Ptolemaic earth-centered view, held by most people at the time) as a metaphor for Hypatia’s scientific thinking. So what did she do? Did she discover any important scientific or mathematical principles? Was she merely a glorified teacher who would be lost to history except for her extraordinarily brutal death? Here’s my best take on Hypatia’s contributions…and students remember this is copyrighted material; no cutting and pasting for your papers, but feel free to check out the reference at the end, quote and attribute! (more…)

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