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Hypatia of Alexandria:Mathmatician and Matyr by Michael A. B. Deakin

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Hypatia of Alexandria:Mathmatician and Matyr by Michael A. B. Deakin

Post by fljustice » Mon March 14th, 2011, 8:33 pm

This is the second part of a two-book review originally posted on my blog as "Hypatia of Alexandria: Two Books." The first part which has an introduction and review of the book Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzieska can be found in its own thread here.

Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr
Prometheus Books, 2007 (231 pages)
Michael A. B. Deakin
Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Mathematical Sciences of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia
In doing my original research, for my novel Selene of Alexandria, I ran across Professor Deakin and his most useful website where he posted all the primary sources that mentioned Hypatia. Over the years, he spoke of her at conferences and wrote articles. Finally, in 2007 he published his book and I got to add another resource to my research shelf.

Deakin’s work differs from Dzielska’s (see former post) primarily in style and a little in content. Mathematician and Martyr, seems drier and more academic than Dzielska’s work, but is still very readable to the non-academic. Deakin lays out his book like a syllabus with discrete chapters and sub-chapters. He briefly covers the history of Alexandria, mathematics, philosophy and religious development, and the political scene during Hypatia’s life. He evaluates the sources, her death and her mathematics. In almost all ways, his interpretation of the sources varies little from Dzielska’s, including the earlier birth date. But he adds one important piece: Hypatia’s contributions to mathematics.

Deakin does a great job of looking at the sources and piecing together the clues to Hypatia’s work. Even a non-mathematician can follow his arguments and have a clear understanding of what she did or didn’t accomplish. He very considerately puts the more arcane mathematical discussions in his appendices, letting us choose how much we want to delve into the minutia of the Greek alphabet, and its relationship to numbers and long division. None of Hypatia’s writings on philosophy survive, but there are some slim clues to her mathematics and Deakin pulls them together for us:

It may come as a disappointment to some to learn that although Hypatia was in her time the world's best mathematician, she cannot realistically be classed as one of the world's great mathematicians. However, if one considers that the times were not at all conducive to mathematical research, that the institutions that had supported such work were gone, and the mathematicians themselves were under great suspicion, then this should not really surprise us...

All in all, we have a picture of a dedicated teacher, a versatile one whose interests embraced virtually the whole of mathematics of the time and extended beyond this to speculative philosophy and to scientific endeavor. We see in her life little of the compartmentalization of knowledge that such a recitation of achievement imposes upon modern ears. Rather, geometry was a route to the One, just as was a celibate lifestyle. Arithmetic and even astronomy were similarly sacred. We may well imagine that the conservation and transmission of knowledge was a matter of passionate concern for her...

And yes, we would like to know more of her. So much is lost and is now quite irrecoverable. But the main outlines of her life and her accomplishment are clear and they command our admiration.

In summary, I liked both books. Taken together, they give a fuller picture than either alone. Dzielska adds the literary tradition and Deakin the mathematical. For anyone wanting the whole picture of Hypatia, Lady Philosopher of Alexandria, I’d recommend reading both.
Faith L. Justice, Author Website

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