Monday, April 15, 2013

First Woman Astronomer Hypatia: Paying Dearly for Her Beliefs

There is a growing interest in the history of astronomy, and I caught the bug.  This week we will go back to 4th century Egypt to consider Hypatai, often called the first female astronomer.  She came to a tragic end due, in large part, to her influence as a scholar, but first let's hear about her life and accomplishments.

Hypatia lived in an enlightened era of Egyptian history when reason and philosophy were highly respected.  Her father, Theon, was a mathematician, astronomer and philosopher.  He was director of the Museum of Alexandria and widely respected.  Hypatia was born in about 370 AD. She was well brought up and sent to Athens for schooling.  There she was educated in the philosophies of Plato and Plotinus.  She returned to Egypt and became head of the Platonist school of Alexandria.

Egypt had a tradition of equality of the sexes since ancient times and Hypatia became an important scholar of her age.  She was described by a contemporary in this interesting quote that I found on Wikipedia:
"There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who 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. 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 the more."

Hypatia's contribution to astronomy was in producing early maps of objects in the sky.  She is associated with the early development of scientific instruments such as the hydrometer and astrolabe. 

In this period of Egyptian history, there was a great deal of political and religious strife.  Hypatia was an influential advisor of the governor of Alexandria who became involved in a bitter feud with the Bishop of Alexandria.  In spring of 415, she was riding peacefully in her carriage when a mob of the Bishop's supporters grabbed her and dragged her through the city to a church.  There she was beaten and her skin scraped from her body to death.

It was a tragic end, but Hypatia's students fled to Athens and continued her tradition of scholarship.  She is now considered an important figure in philosophy and the first well-documented female mathematician and astronomer.