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Women in Science: Mathematics

An Overview

Mathematics is the study of quantity (numbers), structure, space, and change. Often called the language of science, it's the building blocks of the other disciplines mentioned in this guide. 

Hidden Figures- 2017 Film

Telling the largely unknown story of NASA's human computers, Hidden Figures, is a film slated to open January 2017. Based on a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly (set to release September 6, 2016), the film sets to right the historical record behind NASA's groundbreaking achievement. The mathematicians behind Alan Shepard and John Glenn's successful round-trip journey were African-American women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden.

LHL Lectures: Dr. Cynthia Huffman

Dr. Cynthia Huffman, University Professor of Mathematics, Pittsburg State University, Research Fellow, Linda Hall Library, 2015.

About the presentation: The world renowned History of Science Collection at the Linda Hall Library is home to many books which have impacted the development of mathematics. We will take a look in particular at some of the books which were involved in the development of arithmetic and algebra in the 15th and 16th centuries. Topics will include the introduction of the “new” Hindu-Arabic numeration system to Europe, the controversy over the solution of cubic equations, and the shift from rhetorical to symbolic algebra.

Resources & Organizations

Association for Women in Mathematics: Founded in 1971, the AWM is a non-profit organization dedicated to encouraging women and girls to pursue careers in the mathematical sciences, as well as promote equal opportunity and treatment of women in mathematics. 

European Women in Mathematics: Created in 1986, the EWM was organized after the International Congress of Mathematicians in Berkley, CA, by the Association for Women in Mathematics. 

Women in Mathematics Committee- Canadian Mathematical Society: The Women in Mathematics Committee of the CMS was began by members of the Association for Women in Mathematics, and includes a mentor network for young mathematicians and students interested in the mathematical sciences.

Hypatia of Alexandria

Born: 370 CE

Died: March 415 CE


Born during a time when women weren’t supposed to get schooling outside of domestic skills, Hypatia was a singularly unique individual for many reasons, not just in her education. Her father, Theon, a mathematician and the last professor at the University of Alexandria, made sure that his daughter get the same level of education a boy would. Hypatia excelled in mathematics and science, becoming one of the first recognized women to study and be revered for her skills in academics. She wrote on astronomy and algebra, teaching at the University of Alexandria as her father did, and lecturing both at the university and publicly, where crowds of people from all over the known world would gather to hear her speak, including Alexandria’s governor, Orestes.

Among her pupils, Synesius of Cyrene became the most famous, continuing on after her death to become the Bishop of Ptolemy. It is because of his writings that more is known of Hypatia and her discoveries which include an astrolabe, planesphere, and instruments for distilling water, measuring the level of water, and instruments used to determine the gravity of liquids. While many of her writings are no longer in existence, evidence remains to make scholars believe that she wrote completely or influenced the third book in Ptomley’s Almagest, the text that established the Earth-centric model for the universe, as well as an analysis of Euclid’s “Elements” and a commentary on “The Conics of Apollonius.” Like many of her writings, her instruments were destroyed as well.

Hypatia’s discoveries and teachings came at a time when Egypt was a hotspot of political and religious unrest. Alexandria, considered the heart of the learned and academic world, was also where a philosophy now called the Neoplatonic school was concentrated. This school of thought was directly against the rising Christian church, making those who believed and spoke about it disliked by the government at large, and Hypatia was one such orator. Cyril, the nephew of Theophilus, the archbishop who was responsible for the destruction of the last of Alexandria’s Library, succeeded his uncle to became the patriarch of Egypt in 412. He continued his uncle’s beliefs and tradition of open hostility against other faiths, closing and destroying churches one by one and pillaging their valuables. Orestes, a Christian, admirer of Hypatia, and a believer in the Neoplatonic thought, openly contested Cyril’s actions, and the resulting struggle continued to grow. The peak of the unrest was reached when Cyril, directly after a group of Christians was massacred by Jewish extremists, lead a mob that threw all Jews from Alexandria and destroyed and looted their homes and temples. Journeying to Constantinople, Orestes openly protested against these actions to the Roman church, angering Cyril’s followers, who attempted to assassinate him. After the unsuccessful attempt, blame was shifted to Hypatia, whose role as a female educator would have been contested even if she wasn’t speaking on non-Christian philosophy. Her friendship with Orestes and pagan beliefs were thought to be the reason of the strife between the two rulers, so fanatics believed that her death would bring peace back to Alexandria once more. While she was journeying home from her daily lectures at the university, a mob attacked her chariot, stripping her naked, and dragged her to a church, where she was brutally murdered and her body burned.

While some of the ideals she supported, such as an Earth-centric universe, have been proven to be incorrect, her role as one of the first women to study and teach the maths and sciences is symbolic, giving her the honorary title of First Lady of Mathematics.


If you want to learn more about Hypatia & her discoveries, check out these books!

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