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USA Science & Engineering Festival – Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement

Hypatia

Hypatia -- Influential Mathematician and Philosopher

Perhaps the first woman to make a substantial contribution to the development of mathematics. She was murdered by her adversaries.

Her influence as a mathematician, philosopher and teacher in ancient Alexandria, Egypt -- at a time when opportunities for women were practically non-existent-- was so great that Carl Sagan paid tribute to her in his book Cosmos. Hypatia (born between the years 355 and 370 A.D. in Alexandria) has also been recognized in art work and novels throughout history, and today, as her contributions are increasingly recognized, is becoming a role model for young women in science and mathematics.

By the time she reached maturity as a young adult, Hypatia is said to have acquired all existing scientific and philosophical knowledge of the time. She received pupils in her home, and gave public lectures in Athens and in Alexandria.

Why She's Important: Hypatia, collaborating with her father Theon (a great mathematician in his own right and keeper of the Great Library of Alexandria) furthered the work of Ptolemy's astronomy and a new version of Euclid's Elements (the basic text in the history of geometry). Her commentaries on Diophantus's Arithmetica, on Apollonius's Conics are also cited by historians. Carl Sagan, in his book Cosmos, said of Hypatia: "At a time when women had few options and were treated as property, [she] moved freely and unselfconsciously through traditional male domains."

Other Achievements: Hypatia became head of the Platonist school at Alexandria around 400 A.D., where she lectured on mathematics and philosophy, and counted pagans and many prominent Christians among her pupils. She was an early proponent of scientific thought based on rational, sound evidence. Ironically, these qualities led to Hypatia's brutal murder at around 416 A.D. by a sect of the Christian Church which viewed her influence as dangerous and paganistic.

In Her Own Words: Always a seeker of the truth, Hypatia often said: "Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths ...To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing."

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