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Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and…

Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr

by Michael A. B. Deakin

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This book is probably better than just OK, but that's my mood at the moment. It serves its stated purpose in that Deakin reviews & convincingly interprets here all that it is known, which is very little, about 4th and early 5th century Hypatia of Alexandra, who was, if not the first, perhaps the most celebrated of women mathematicians, astronomers,& philosophers (she was all three)in the classical tradition. In fact, Deakin rates her as the most accomplished mathematician in the world at the time(apparently, mathematics was in a period of decline or quiescence in China & India, yet to fully develop in the Arabic world & undocumented in Persia). The Museum and libraries of Alexandria were "dying" at the end of the 4th c., under attack by an increasingly more powerful Christian worldview that saw mathematics as evil, confused astronomy with astrology, & denigrated Neo-platonic philosophy as taught by philosophers such as Hypatia. According to Deakin, this was not an era of original research, but one in which preservation & education were primary. Both Hypatia and her father Theon were known as teachers and commentators. Hypatia was murdered by a mob of monks in the year 416 (or thereabouts), dragged from her carriage (or high chair)& bludgeoned to death with roofing tiles (!). Her fragmented body was then burned. A martyr for the intellect, one could say. ( )
  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
Rather unsatisfying biography of Hypatia. The author uses all sorts of repetition and unnecessary verbiage to expand what amounts to only about 20 pages of material to a 114 page book. The rest of the book is just appendices and notes. In addition, the chapter discussing Hypatia's philosophy doesn't really discuss her philosophy; the chapter discussnig Hypatia's mathematics doesn't really discuss her mathematics. The author mainly discusses the ways in which it is possible to determine what her philosophy/mathermatics/religion was, but basically the book feels like a dinner that serves nothing but spinach and forgets to include the meat, let alone the dessert. ( )
  Devil_llama | Oct 7, 2011 |
In doing my original research, for my novel "Selene of Alexandria," I ran across Professor Deakin and his most useful website where he posted all the primary sources that mentioned Hypatia. Over the years, he spoke of her at conferences and wrote articles. Finally, in 2007 he published his book and I got to add another resource to my research shelf.

Deakin’s work differs from Maria Dzielska’s "Hypatia of Alexandria" primarily in style and a little in content. "Mathematician and Martyr", seems drier and more academic than Dzielska’s work, but is still very readable to the non-academic. Deakin lays out his book like a syllabus with discrete chapters and sub-chapters. He briefly covers the history of Alexandria, mathematics, philosophy and religious development, and the political scene during Hypatia’s life. He evaluates the sources, her death and her mathematics. In almost all ways, his interpretation of the sources varies little from Dzielska’s, including an earlier birth date. But he adds one important piece: Hypatia’s contributions to mathematics.

Deakin does a great job of looking at the sources and piecing together the clues to Hypatia’s work. Even a non-mathematician can follow his arguments and have a clear understanding of what she did or didn’t accomplish. He very considerately puts the more arcane mathematical discussions in his appendices, letting us choose how much we want to delve into the minutia of the Greek alphabet, and its relationship to numbers and long division. None of Hypatia’s writings on philosophy survive, but there are some slim clues to her mathematics and Deakin pulls them together for us:

"It may come as a disappointment to some to learn that although Hypatia was in her time the world's best mathematician, she cannot realistically be classed as one of the world's great mathematicians. However, if one considers that the times were not at all conducive to mathematical research, that the institutions that had supported such work were gone, and the mathematicians themselves were under great suspicion, then this should not really surprise us... All in all, we have a picture of a dedicated teacher, a versatile one whose interests embraced virtually the whole of mathematics of the time and extended beyond this to speculative philosophy and to scientific endeavor. We see in her life little of the compartmentalization of knowledge that such a recitation of achievement imposes upon modern ears. Rather, geometry was a route to the One, just as was a celibate lifestyle. Arithmetic and even astronomy were similarly sacred. We may well imagine that the conservation and transmission of knowledge was a matter of passionate concern for her...And yes, we would like to know more of her. So much is lost and is now quite irrecoverable. But the main outlines of her life and her accomplishment are clear and they command our admiration."

In summary, I liked both books. Taken together, they give a fuller picture than either alone. Dzielska adds the literary tradition and Deakin the mathematical. For anyone wanting the whole picture of Hypatia, Lady Philosopher of Alexandria, I’d recommend reading both. (This is the second part of a post from my blog titled "Hypatia of Alexandria: Two Books." The first part reviewed Maria Dzielska's "Hypatia of Alexandria" and my review can also be found on LT.) ( )
1 vote MarysGirl | Mar 14, 2011 |
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In the late fourth and early fifth centuries of our era, Hypatia of Alexandria was the world’s greatest living mathematician and astronomer. A strikingly beautiful woman and a devoted celibate, she lived in a city as turbulent and troubled as Baghdad or Beirut is today. She achieved fame not only in her special field, but also as a philosopher, religious thinker, and teacher who attracted a large popular following. Her life ended tragically in violence at the hands of a rampaging mob of Christian fanatics, who killed her for her "pagan" beliefs, some say at the instigation of St. Cyril of Alexandria.
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