370?-415 C.E. – SOME HISTORIANS THINK HER DEATH HERALDED THE END OF FREE THOUGHT IN THE ANCIENT WORLD. BUT HER WORK CONTINUED TO BE STUDIED FOR OVER A THOUSAND YEARS AFTER SHE WAS MURDERED.
Letters addressed simply to the Philosopher were delivered to her at the Museum in Alexandria, the intellectual center of the world in the 4th C. Self-possessed and confident, she had no qualms about addressing an academy full of men. In fact, Hypatia's intellect surpassed even that her father Theon, the scholar.
Hypatia was born mid century and studied mathematics and philosophy with her father. Together they wrote an eleven part commentary on the works of the astronomer Ptolemy. She was instrumental in the refinement of the astrolabe, hydroscope, and planisphere. Hypatia studied Plato and spent her life revising the works of Euclid. Today's students can thank her for making geometry courses easier to understand.
Hypatia was a scholar who believed in science, not religion. She was caught in a power struggle between Cyril, the Bishop, and her friend Orestes, the civil governor. Inflamed by Cyril, a mob of Christian fanatics flayed her to death with broken tiles. Most of Alexandria's scholarly works were destroyed in the service of bigotry and civil war when religious authorities purged the Library and Museum. But 12 to 14 hundred years after her death Descartes, Leibniz and Newton all based their work upon Hypatia's theories. Remnants of her letters remain. Among the nuggets of blasphemy she passed on to her students are these words: Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.
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HER-STORY: THEN & NOW was made possible by support from the National Science Foundation.