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The Beauty of Reasoning

A Reexamination of Hypatia of Alexandra

By Bryan J. Whitfield

No handiwork of Callimachus,
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands.

The vagaries of war, decay, accident, and time have effaced more than the handiwork of Callimachus, as W. B. Yeats (1962, p. 159) well knew. As invaders put old civilizations to the sword and their manuscripts to the fire, they destroyed as well the work of countless mathematicians. The contributions of Hypatia, the most famous woman mathematician of antiquity, must unfortunately be counted among that number. The lexicographers record that she produced commentaries on the algebra of Diophantus, the conics of Apollonius, as well as a work entitled The Astronomical Canon. Letters from her students document her ability to construct devices like the hydroscope (hydrometer) and the astrolabe. But no record from her own hand remains.

This silence, so emblematic of the contributions of women to mathematics, is poignant enough, but Hypatia’s tragic murder in the mob violence of 415 exemplifies in the extreme the marginalization of female mathematicians. But Hypatia has suffered a fate worse than neglect; she has become a symbol.

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