Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Hypetia - The First Female Scholar of Alexandria

        You might have heard about the Lighthouse of Alexandria or the Library of Alexandria but do you know that the first female mathematician and philosopher of history was born in Alexandria, Egypt on (355 or 370 - 415 AD)? The name of this Great Female Scholar was Hypetia. She was an Alexandrine Neoplatonist philosopher who was the first well-documented woman in mathematics. Hypatia is known for her chastity, virtue, and beauty as much as for her ideas in an era of Belfast-style conflict between pagans and Christians.

Hypatia was the daughter of Theon of Alexandria, himself a mathematician and astronomer and the last attested member of the Alexandrian Museum. From early child hood she received initiation knowledge of mathematics, science and philosophy from her father. Later on she went to Neo-platonic school in Athens for higher education and she earned a good reputation as a mathematician. 
 Later on she join in the University of Alexandria as a teacher of mathematics and philosophy. She also made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions.
Besides being intellectual she was incomparable with her wonderful beauty and personality. That’s why people used to call her "Le souffle de Platon et le corps d'Aphrodit" the "spirit of Plato in the body of Aphrodite".

On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her more.

With her father Theon she also worked in the preservation of Euclid’s Elements, she  wrote extensively, commentary on Ptolemy’s Almagest. She is also credited with commentaries on Apollonius of Perga’s Conics (geometry) and Diophantus of Alexandria’s Arithmetic (number theory). It was her selfless effort to preserve the Greek mathematical and astronomical heritage in extremely difficult times. She also wrote a book on astronomy named "The Astronomical Canon".

Her contributions to science are reputed to include the charting of celestial bodies and the invention of the hydrometer, used to determine the relative density (or specific gravity) of liquids. Along with her student Synesius she invented and developed "Astrolabe", the device that determines the distance to stars, which is considered as a significant contribution to the discovery.

She was, in her time, the world’s leading mathematician and astronomer, the only woman for whom such claim can be made. She was also a popular teacher and lecturer on philosophical topics of a less-specialist nature, attracting many loyal students and large audiences. Hypatia based her teachings on those of Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism, and Iamblichus who was a developer of Neoplatonism around 300 AD.

Plotinus taught that there is an ultimate reality which is beyond the reach of thought or language. The object of life was to aim at this ultimate reality which could never be precisely described. Plotinus stressed that people did not have the mental capacity to fully understand both the ultimate reality itself and the consequences of its existence. Iamblichus distinguished further levels of reality in a hierarchy of levels beneath the ultimate reality. There was a level of reality corresponding to every distinct thought of which the human mind was capable. Hypatia taught these philosophical ideas with a greater scientific emphasis than earlier followers of Neoplatonism. She is described by all commentators as a charismatic teacher. But early Christians identified her learning with paganism.

In 412 Cyril became patriarch (head of religious body) of Alexandria. Soon the Orestes, the Governor of Alexandria and Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria became bitter political rivals as church and state fought for control. Orestes was a Christian, but he did not want to cede power to the church. The struggle for power reached its peak following a massacre of Christians by Jewish extremists, when Cyril led a crowd that expelled all Jews from the city and looted their homes and temples. Orestes protested to the Roman government in Constantinople. When Orestes refused Cyril’s attempts at reconciliation, Cyril’s monks tried unsuccessfully to assassinate him.

Hypatia, however, was an easier target. She was a pagan who publicly spoke about a non-Christian philosophy, Neoplatonism, and she was less likely to be protected by guards than the now-prepared Orestes. Hypatia was a friend and advisor of Orestes. So a rumor spread that she was preventing Orestes and Cyril from settling their differences. From there, Peter the Lector and his mob took action and Hypatia met her tragic end.

She was killed by an Alexandrian mob under the leadership of the reader Peter. They kidnapped Hypatia on her way home and took her to the "Church called Caesareum. They then completely stripped her, and then murdered her with roofing tiles. They then tore her body apart and burned it. 

Though she is remembered more for her violent death, her dramatic life and her contribution to sciece, mathematics and philosophy in an challenging era of religious and sectarian conflict made her a remarkable person in the history.

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