February 19, 2019

Review: Hypatia of Alexandria by Michael A.B. Deakin.

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It seems that the further back you go, the less certain we are of facts in our very own history. Stories become more legendary, tales more fantastical. History seems to love a good story and never cares for any of the pesky hard truths that sometimes get in the way.

Such can be said for the subject of this week’s review, Hypatia of Alexandria, Mathematician and Martyr by Michael A.B. Deakin. Out from Prometheus Books, Hypatia of Alexandria looks at the life of one of the earliest woman mathematicians and astronomers of antiquity. She was also the last luminary of the famous library of Alexandra located in modern day Egypt before she was brutally (and publicly) murdered and the library was destroyed (according to some sources) in 415 A.D. If any single event along with the Fall of Rome to the barbarian hordes marked the start of the Dark Ages, this was it.

Like many in the modern era, we first heard of Hypatia and the Library watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Hypatia still turns up in modern references to ancient scientists, and many intellectuals and feminists have co-opted her martyrdom to their cause. Still, it’s fascinating how little is truly known about her. None of her writings survive, and we know only a little of her treatises and discourses on mathematics and astronomy via second hand sources.

The 4th century world of Hypatia was one racked political and religious upheaval. This was a time when Christianity was first gaining a foothold across the Mediterranean region and an ideological war was being waged for political power. Although Hypatia may not have wanted to have been drawn into such, she in fact found herself at the center of the maelstrom, as depicted in the 2009 film Agora.

Still, much exists about her either in print or on the internet that is at best either allegorical or apocryphal. Deakin looks at many of these legends and the controversy surrounding her with a keen academic eye. One assertion that is persistent that the author successfully dismisses is that Hypatia and Saint Catherine venerated by Coptic Christians in Egypt today were one in the same. The author also delves into the religious and political worlds of the times as well as the mathematics of Hypatia. It seems that many scientific historians are intent on claiming her as their own for their own particular subspecialty while ignoring her chief contributions as a mathematician. What is it about history and math? How many famous mathematicians (there are many) can YOU name? How ‘bout famous women mathematicians?

If you draw up a big zero, you’re not alone. Read Hypatia of Alexandria to set the record straight on a fascinating figure from our ancient history. The work has more of an academic tone to it than a light biography, but it stands as the definitive work on her life and times.

Next Week: Speaking of ancient history, we look at one of the forgotten early works by an American science fiction master with Robert Heinlein’s Sixth Column!


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