Hypatia of Alexandria (c. 370-c. 415 AD) was a briiliant Greek scholar, mathematician, scientist, and a philosopher.

Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia of Alexandria

She was a professor and the head of the Neoplatonic school at the University of Alexandria, where she taught philosophy and astronomy. One of the first well known women mathematicians, she wrote many scholarly articles on mathematics and built scientific instruments.

Hypatia was the daughter of the mathematician and the philosopher Theon Alexandricus (c. 335 – c. 405 AD) who was a professor at the University of Alexandria. Her mother had passed away when she was a baby. So, Hypatia spent her time with her father, much of it at the university. From her early childhood, Hypatia had demonstrated an unusual brilliance in her thought process. Theon gave her formal training in the arts, literature, science, and philosophy besides mathematics. Theon had taught Hypatia to have an open mind about new ideas and to keep questioning rather than assuming one version of truth to be absolute. Later on, she attended a school in Athens, Greece where Plutarch and his daughter Asclepigenia taught. After returning to Alexandria from Athens, the University of Alexandria appointed her in a teaching position. She taught alongside many great scholars. Besides teaching, she wrote a series of mathematical treatises based on other mathematician’s works. Often, the original works were too abstruse for students to digest. So she wrote notes revealing their ideas in an understandable way. She often communicated with contemporary mathematicians, philosophers, and scientists through letters and exchanged ideas. One such great philosopher was Synesius of Cyrene, Greece who was experiencing difficulty in gathering information for some of his experiments. Hypatia suggested using astrolabe, an instrument she had designed for measuring the positions of stars and planets, and planisphere, another instrument she had designed for studying astronomy. Much of the information about Hypatia is available from her letters to Synesius. Hypatia had also invented a water distillation device.

Hypatia’s most notable works besides her scientific inventions included:

  • A treatise on the 13-volume Arithmetica by Diophantus.
  • A treatise on the Conics of Apollonius.
  • Enhancements to Ptolemy’s work Almagest.
  • Notes on her father’s commentary on Euclid’s Elements.
  • A text “The Astronomical Canon”.

Following in her father’s footsteps, she instructed her students to question rather than to assume even when it came to ideas that government or religious leaders barred from questioning. This teaching turned out to be also a source of trouble for her. Hypatia got in the middle of a struggle between two leaders of Alexandria: Orestes, the governor of Alexandria who was also her student, and Cyril, the archbishop of the Christian church in Alexandria. Orestes was known to question. On the other hand, Cyril was antagonistic to anyone who did not accept his religious views. Hypatia and Orestes regularly exchanged their ideas and views. Cyril believed Hypatia was responsible for the rise of heretic ideas in Alexandria. After a prolonged dispute between the followers of the two leaders, Cyril ordered his followers to murder Hypatia. A mob of religious fanatics kidnapped her and dragged her through the streets, finally stripping and murdering her.

Hypatia’s important contributions to mathematics and science should serve as inspiration to modern day mathematicians. Hypatia’s illustrious life shows that men and women can achieve excellence through an open-mind, inquisitive nature, and hard work.