Thursday, October 4, 2012
On Math and Martyrdom: Hypatia of Alexandria
With that foundation laid, we spend most of the rest of the semester looking at specific case studies.
Our first case study this semester is Hypatia of Alexandria; a very risky choice, because so little is known about the life and work of this fourth century mathematician. A contemporary historian, Socrates Scholasticus, gives us this compelling description:
There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.
Hypatia's accomplishments did little to save her from a violent death. In AD 415, she was dragged from her chariot by a Christian mob, stripped, stoned, dismembered and burned. Although Socrates names her as the greatest philosopher of her time, virtually nothing remains of the work in literature and science to which she dedicated her life.
Well for one, she was a close friend of the Prefect Orestes, who at the time, though Christian, was embroiled in a bitter power struggle with Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria. This was a period of violent and dramatic change. Christianity, until recently an oppressed religion, was now the official faith of the Roman Empire, and as such was rising toward unprecedent power with zealous vigor.
Three centuries later, the historian John of Nikiu would also accuse Hypatia of devotion "to magic, astrolabes, and instruments of music", and of "beguiling many people through Satanic wiles".
But Hypatia was not a witch by any definition. She was a mathematician, and an extraordinarily well respected one at that.
Often when I think of Hypatia's story, I remember the 1991 Teen Talk Barbie declaring to the world that math is tough. Mattel received a lot of well-deserved grief for putting those words in Barbie's mouth. Yet Mattel did not invent this idea. Math has been declared "tough" for girls for centuries now, capable of causing all sorts of irreversible damage, from hysteria to shriveled ovaries. And of course, in Hypatia's time, too much knowledge of mathematics could get you dragged from your chariot, stripped, stoned, dismembered and burned.
Now that is tough.
Is the cultural myth of the "toughness" of math somehow an echo of Hypatia's fate?
Is it an admonishment to all those girls who might dare to disagree with Barbie and think math -- and in a larger sense, science -- is actually fun, even easy?
Studies indicate that at the tender age of six, both boys and girls already believe boys are better at math. And yet, comprehensive assessments of math abilities among boys and girls across many countries and cultures have demonstrated this is not so. On average, girls do just as well as boys in math, though other socioeconomic factors can influence the performance of both.
Still, we keep telling our girls that math is tough. Mothers tend to understimate the math abilities of their daughters, and overestimate the math abilities of their sons. Even at the university level, female professors are just as likely as their male colleagues to exhibit bias against women students of science. And why wouldn't they be? After all, look at Hypatia. That's what happens when a woman cultivates her mind, becomes self-possessed, and is unabashed about walking into an assembly of men.
Alejandro Amenabar's 2009 film Agora postulates, in a way viewed as clever by some and far-fetched by others, that Hypatia's study of geometry and the movement of heavenly bodies may have led her to conclude, 1200 years before Johannes Kepler was born, that the earth orbits the sun.
In truth, we will never know how much knowledge was lost when Hypatia and her work was destroyed, but think about this:
If the death of one woman could set us back a thousand years, how many millennia do we sacrifice every time the barrier of prejudice excludes another girl from the path of knowledge and discovery?