By Elizabeth Kershteyn
Science has had many martyrs, the most prominent among them being Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruno. However, few people know that both of these great men were preceded by a remarkable woman: Hypatia of Alexandria.
Hypatia was born in Alexandria in the Eastern Roman Empire in the 4th century. She was a prominent mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who lived during the rise of Christianity. Hypatia was the daughter of a great mathematician and astronomer, Theon, who encouraged his daughter’s love for science and teaching. Hypatia taught students from all over the Mediterranean, lecturing on the works of Plato and Aristotle. Despite being a pagan herself, she was tolerant of Christians, and in fact, many of her students were Christians. Unfortunately, Hypatia lived during a time when Chrsitianity and paganism were fighting each other to be the official religion of the empire. Hypatia considered the destruction of Serapeum, the temple of Greco-Egyptian deity Serapis which also housed the remnants of the great Library of Alexandria, one of the greatest tragedies.
Hypatia was a Neoplatonist, meaning she believed in a philosophy that held that happiness was attainable without an afterlife and that one should focus on meditation and studying while disregarding the distractions of the world. Because this view of Neoplatonism was not supported by the Christians at the time, Hypatia was attacked by a mob of Christian zealots. These zealots dragged her to the church where they stripped her naked, tore her body to pieces, and set them on fire. This kind of punishment was reserved for Alexandria’s vilest criminals.
Hypatia was a remarkable woman because she was a female scholar during times of great change and uncertainty. Even though her devotion to science brought her to death, Hypatia’s work and legacy still lives on today. Hypatia is an example of how nothing can stray a person from their passions and beliefs.