Who was Ipazia (Υπατία η Αλεξανδρινή)?

Ipazia: Biography of a scientist and a symbol.

Ipazia (370-415 a.D.) lived in Alexandria in the 4th century. For fifteen centuries she was the only woman scientist in history and even today her fame comes second only to that of Marie Curie. She is the only woman to appear in books concerning the history of mathematics and astronomy, although she is mentioned more for the romanticism of her life and death than for other reasons.

Ipazia became the symbol of the end of ancient science because mathematics, physics and astronomy progressed very little after her death. She lived in a period during which the Roman Empire was converting to Christianity and the sciences were considered heretical. She was educated by her father, Teone, mathematician and astronomer, who wanted her to become ‘a perfect human being’ in an age when women were often considered to be less than human!

Ipazia travelled to Athens and Rome where she made an impression for her intelligence and beauty. On returning to Alexandria she taught mathematics, philosophy, astronomy and mechanics and her house became a centre of intellectual activity. Unfortunately, none of her documents (mostly in the form of textbooks for students) have been preserved intact although it appears that part of her work was incorporated into the works of Teone.

The most important part of her work is to be found in the 13 VOLUMI DI COMMENTO ALL’”ARITMETICA” by Diofanto, considered to be the father of algebra. She also wrote a dissertation in 8 volumes on the ‘Coniche di Apollonio’ (by Apollonius of Perga, 3rd century, text which introduced epicycles and differentials to explain the orbits of planets). She was also interested in the study of conicals and wrote a dissertation on Euclides and Tolomeus. The ‘Corpus Astronomico’, a collection of tables concerning the heavenly bodies, is also attributed to Ipazia.

Ipazia was also interested in mechanics and technology: she designed scientific instruments, among which a flat astrolabe, an instrument to measure the level of water and an apparatus for its distillation and a brass hydrometer to calculate the density of liquids.

She was a pagan, a follower of a form of Neoplatonism that was more tolerant towards mathematics, and as such she was considered an heretic by the Christians. Persecution against Neoplatonists and Jews began in 412 a.D. when Cyrillus became patriarch of Alexandria. Ipazia refused to convert and to renounce to her ideas and in March 415 she was brutally assassinated. Her death marked the end of neoplatonic teaching in Alexandria and throughout the Empire.