Top 3 myths about the classical mathematician Hypatia

Friday, July 23, 2021

Hypatia sketchIn the history of mathematics, Hypatia’s legend looms large. She was a woman mathematician in an era when women were not generally seen as academics. She has been called a martyr for truth and reason. And because of the context of her life and death, Hypatia continues to be one of the most enigmatic figures in mathematics.

As a trailblazer and as someone who pushed the boundaries for women in mathematics and science, Hypatia is an inspiration for women and girls in STEM fields. Here in the Faculty of Mathematics, that inspiration is reflected in our committees for Women in Math (WiM) and Women in Computer Science (WiCS). It is also reflected in our community outreach and support for programs like Technovation Girls Waterloo.

Although her reputation and prestige are enormous, most things about Hypatia are up for debate, including her mathematical contributions, inventions, publications and even the simple details of her life. Part of the reason for this is that Hypatia lived so long ago, born somewhere between 350 and 370 CE. But another reason is the sheer level of her fame. Since her myth is part of the cultural fabric of mathematics and science itself, some embellishments are perhaps inevitable.

To help clear things up, here are the top three myths about Hypatia that keep getting repeated, even if they may not be entirely true. But remember, pointing out these myths is not to discredit Hypatia or say she is not a towering and significant mathematician and philosopher. Even in her own time, she was widely recognized as a genius and made tremendous contributions to collective knowledge.

1. Hypatia died defending the Great Library of Alexandria

Hypatia was born and lived in Alexandria, Egypt when the Roman Empire ruled the city. Her family was said to be Greek by background, descendent from the Ptolemaic ruling class that governed the city since Alexander the Great. A mob brutally murdered Hypatia when they were whipped into a frenzy by one of her political foes. At the time, some Roman politicians described her death as martyrdom for wisdom and philosophy. That may be part of the reason for her later association with the destruction of the Great Library, through the Great Library of Alexandria had been destroyed hundreds of years earlier.

2. Hypatia invented the astrolabe 

An astrolabe is an astronomical device used to measure the position and movements of visible celestial bodies. It is something like a precursor to the sextant. Hypatia is often said to have invented the astrolabe and several other mathematical and astronomical measurement devices. However, the astrolabe had been in use for more than five hundred years at Hypatia’s birth. Her reputation as someone who could craft reliable celestial measurement devices is probably why she is often credited with this invention.

3. Hypatia’s death marked the beginning of the Dark Ages

Well, this one may be true in some respects, as the absolute beginning of the Dark Ages is always going to be up for debate. Some commentators link Hypatia’s death with the burgeoning anti-intellectual that supposedly precipitated the Dark Ages, assuming that the mob murdered Hypatia because of her philosophical and scientific views. However, her untimely death is as easily explained as opportunistic political assassination, rather than as a result of her academic understanding of the world.

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