Ada Lovelace Day 2009. Women in Technology: Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia, detail from School fo Athens (1510) by Raphael Sanzio

Hypatia, detail from "School of Athens" (1510) by Raphael Sanzio. CC Wikimedia Commons

Hypatia  (b. ~360CE  d. 415CE) was a mathematician, philosopher, astronomer and teacher in Roman Alexandria. She was also quite probably the last librarian of the famous Library of Alexandria. Note that at the time, the definition of Philosophy was much broader, and encompassed what we term today the natural and exact sciences; and yes, she was also a techie. She is credited with inventing the hydrometer, for measuring the specific gravity of liquids.

In a time of political turmoil, she appeared to have supported the secular authority Prefect of Rome, Oresteus against the Pope of Alexandria, Cyril. Eventually, this cost her her life. Socrates Scholasticus (Socrates of Constantinople), a 5th Century Christian Church Historian wrote in Historia Ecclesiastica:

Chapter XV.–Of Hypatia the Female Philosopher.

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 unfrequently appeared in public in
presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to
an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity
and virtue admired her the more. Yet even she fell a victim to the
political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had
frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among
the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from
being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by
a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter,
waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they
took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped
her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in
pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and
there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not
only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And
surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the
allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort. This
happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of
Cyril’s episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the
sixth of Theodosius.

Ian Holmes introduced me to Ada Lovelace day. I pledged to blog this day, and here we are. Hypatia was an intelligent, courageous, free-thinking woman who paid dearly for her beliefs, her principles, and if you can read between the lines, her gender.

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