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Teaching as Hypatia of Alexandria

by Fran Bagenal

January 2009

A 1908 Illustration of Hypatia

"Fable should be taught as fable, myth as myth, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truth is horrifying. The mind of a child accepts them and only through great pain, perhaps tragedy, can the child be relieved of them. Men will fight for superstition as quickly as for the living truth -- even more so, since a superstition is intangible, you can't get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, as so is changeable."

Hypatia of Alexandria (370 - 415 BC)


As a junior professor in the late 1990s I felt pressure (not sure exactly where from) to add some diversity to the standard history of astronomy. I was also spending my time churning through the historical material in the textbook and wondering how I would remember the names, dates and who-did-what of the long list of “dead white men”. Somehow I stumbled upon Hypatia of Alexandria. Boing! It hit me – I had to deliver my next lecture as Hypatia. After all, she had been a teacher of mathematics and astronomy, conveniently at the end of the ancient scientific era, and must have taught the very same concepts: the logical arguments for the Earth being round, the measurement of the size of the Earth, the relative sizes and distances between the Sun/Earth/Moon system, etc. It was true that I would have to greatly simplify the math (university students’ skills of geometry having diminished over the past 1600 years). I would also have to leave her contemplating how the lack of measurement of any parallax motion (supporting Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the solar system) seemed logically inconsistent with Aristarchus’ measurement of the Sun being much farther than the Moon and, as the largest object, the most logical center of the universe.

Fran Bagenal is a Professor of Astrophysical & Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She usually wears a t-shirt and jeans.

The moment of realization that I had to bite the theatrical bullet hit me while I was on a plane to visit collaborators at the University of Iowa. They encouraged me (easy for them!) as I described, with some trepidation, my plan to don a sheet and stand up in front of 200 students to deliver a lecture on Greek astronomy. Kindly, the wife of one of the colleagues gave me an old white petticoat to go underneath (I certainly did not possess such a garment). So, on Monday morning I told my TA to put all the paraphernalia of a modern classroom away and to announce that there was a surprise special guest lecture.

Feeling what I would have described in my English childhood as “a right pillock”, I marched into the lecture theater smiling and trying to act what I hoped might pass as gracious. I had set out on a bench some items to help me demonstrate basic concepts: a plumb bob made from a piece of string with a pebble attached and a yard stick (to show that measuring lengths and using Pythagorus’ theorem allowed the Greeks to label the location of stars in the sky); candles, a ball and a plate (to show building physical models allowed the Greeks to discriminate between hypotheses for what shape of the Moon would explain the phases); and balls of different sizes to act out the geometries of eclipses (to illustrate how the Greeks used observations of eclipses to work out all sorts of clever things, with a bit of geometry – sadly too complex for the average Intro Astro student). I reckoned that Hypatia had tablets to write on so chalk on the blackboard was probably not stretching the technology unreasonably. At the end, to my amazement, the students gave me an ovation.

Since my first encounter with Hypatia, I have learned all sorts of things about this remarkable woman – probably mostly wishful thinking and mythology that has developed over the millennia. But she really did know her math, she was a good teacher and she certainly stuck her neck out for rational thought.

Her contemporary, Socrates Scholasticus, describes her in his Ecclesiastical History:

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 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.

Sadly, the history books tend to dwell on her social liaisons and grisly death. Her scientific achievements (mostly writings explaining earlier Greek works, though some give her credit for development of the astrolabe and the hydroscope) are described in various compilations of women scientists’ biographies (see below). And my hero Carl Sagan paid homage to her in “Cosmos” (which I actually missed being TV-less at college). The 19th century romantics just loved the drama of her life and she featured in novels and paintings. I think it would be cool if “Sex in The City” wrote her into the next film – she would fit right in.

Many Americans were introduced to Hypatia by Judy Chicago (b. 1939) whose art piece (perhaps better described as a 5-year-long re-education of the nation on the contributions of women) of 1974-9, The Dinner Party included a Hypatia place setting. The installation can be seen at the Brooklyn Museum. Photograph by Jook Leung Photography


But the best thing about modern Hypatia is how the internet has allowed young women around the world to pick her as a symbol, to make her their own and to develop lots of sites expounding women in science. Try a Google on Hypatia and you will see what I mean. I have listed some of my favorite URLs.

I repeated the Hypatia lecture many times, until I felt the performance was getting stale. My faculty colleagues seemed amused by my antics and might mention the act as an indication of dedication to teaching. But none of them bothered to turn up to see the lecture. Oh well, their loss. I also realized that 18-year olds tend not to care much for history. Having their professor dress up in a sheet made an entertaining change, but I think they probably learned more (about heat conduction) when I poured boiling water on my foot in a demonstration of how big potatoes (and planets) cool much more slowly than small ones. But don’t let the cynicism of a jaded old professor put you off! I urge readers to be bold and seize any opportunity to teach creatively (just plan carefully and avoid boiling water). I have to admit that I had fun. Go for it!

Charles William Mitchell was an English Pre-Raphaelite painter from Newcastle, UK (1854-1903). His one famous piece was Hypatia, shown in 1885 and likely inspired by the Charles Kingsley serialized novel Hypatia or New Foes with an Old Face. This painting is currently in the Laing Art Gallery.


Hypatia resources:

The three quotes from Hypatia are typeset in Thomas Phinney’s new Hypatia Sans font (available via Adobe).

Hypatia of Alexandria – Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press 1995) – perhaps the definitive biography – but also an eminently readable 100-page paperback.

Hypatia’s Heritage by Margaret Alec (Beacon Press 1986) – Compilation of history of women in science

Women in Mathematics – Lunn M. Osen (MIT Press 1974) – ditto for women in mathematics.

Women Scientists from Antiquity to the Present: An Index – Caroline L. Herzenberg (Locust Hill Press 1986) – a nice discussion of Hypatia in the introduction.

Hypatia – Charles Kingsley (1819–1875) – Fictionalized account of her life, now available

On Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypatia_of_Alexandria

Howard Landman put together an extensive list of web resources – perhaps getting a little out of date - http://www.polyamory.org/~howard/Hypatia/

Carl Sagan quote from Cosmos

Impact crater on the Moon named after Hypatia

A women in science and science education site http://www.hypatiamaze.org/

Fran Bagenal’s Intro Astro online chapter on the history of astronomy http://lasp.colorado.edu/~bagenal/1010/SESSIONS/5.ScienceAstronomy.html

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