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No. 215:
Hypatia's Mathematics

Today, we meet a great 4th-century mathematician. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The famous library in ancient Alexandria was what we'd call a museum or a university. It was the great center of learning and the storehouse of knowledge in the ancient world. A lady named Hypatia was born there in AD 370. Her father was a famous mathematician and the library's director.

Hypatia was gifted in every way. She was beautiful, and her intellect was astonishing. That intellect was nurtured by the best minds in the land. And she was steered toward independence. "Reserve your right to think," her father said, "for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all."

Hypatia became a brilliant public speaker and scholar, and she followed her father on the library's faculty. There she wrote on mathematics and astronomy. She did work on algebraic equations and conic sections. She invented the astrolabe for ship navigation and devices for measuring the density of fluids. She was linked with several men, but she never married. She was too much the strong-minded public figure for that.

The story of Hypatia's death at the age of 45 is not a nice one, but I'm obliged to tell it. Alexandria was divided between Christians and non-Christians. Political power was also divided -- between Bishop Cyril and Hypatia's close friend Orestes, who was the prefect of Alexandria. Cyril was later canonized for his opposition to certain heresies. But he was no Mother Teresa. He was power-hungry and locked in combat with Orestes.

Hypatia was a neoplatonist -- a rationalist -- part of a breed that'd survived since Classical Greece. Cyril was quite the opposite -- conservative and dogmatic, with the kind of dark side that's intermittently stained Christianity right down to the present day. In AD 415 Cyril's thugs carried out a political reprisal against Orestes, and Hypatia made the perfect target. They created a riot, and in the middle of it they waylaid Hypatia on the way to the Library. They hauled her from her chariot, tortured her horribly, and finally burned what was left alive.

It's a terrible story -- a really terrible story. But it takes a last curious twist. Most of what we know about Hypatia comes to us out of letters written to her by one of her adoring students, Synesius of Cyrene. Synesius was an eminent philosopher, and he later went on to become a Christian bishop.

Historians seldom concur in praising anyone. It's too much fun to point out human limitations. Hypatia is a rare exception. It appears that she really was one of the great intellects, and one of the great people, of the ancient world.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Osen, L.M., Women in Mathematics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974, pp. 21-32.