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
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
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