Sunday, March 27, 2011

Hypatia: Victim of Christian Zealots

It was only recently, while viewing again Carl Sagan's 'Cosmos' series, Episode I: 'The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean', that I encountered Hypatia of Alexandria, the first and most esteemed female astronomer and mathematician. Sagan presented her in conjunction with the great Library of Alexandria, containing a store of knowledge so vast that it rivaled the Lighthouse of Alexandria as a wonder of the ancient world.

As Sagan observed, had the works in that Library been preserved, as opposed to being lost (it was burnt to the ground by Christian Crusaders) we'd likely have already gone to the stars by now - as opposed to having to start all over again. By that I mean undergoing 700-plus years of 'Dark Ages' before science acquired its footing once more, starting with Copernicus.

Hypatia's story is bound up in many ways with the Library. As a Pagan and scholar, Hypatia taught the existing Aristotelian Physics, as well as the geometry of Euclid, while also teaching Neo-Platonist philosophy. Her students were often a polyglot mix of Egyptian pagans, Romans (who then occupied Alexandria) and Christians, including a few slaves.

Where did Hypatia acquire such formidable knowledge in an Age in which women were seldom seen or heard? (Even the well born). Most plausibly from her father Theon, who succeeded Euclid (some 600-odd years later) as professor mathematics at the Alexandria Museum, but which actually included the great Library and rooms for lecturing. In other words, the ancient counterpart of our modern university.

In one such demonstration, Hypatia is reputed to have dropped a number of objects to the ground then asked her students to explain the phenomenon, especially the fact all objects fell at the same rate. Governed by Aristotelian physics, she couldn't see that a force (in this case) gravity was responsible, but rather because Earth was the putative "center" of the cosmos, it pulled all objects toward its center.

Much later, after conducting many other of her own experiments (including dropping objects from the yardarms of moving ships) did she come to the conclusion that the Earth may not be the center but rather moved around the Sun. She also may have been the first to note the shape of the orbit had to be an ellipse, since the Sun's position on the horizon through the year wasn't uniform but assumed different degrees of azimuth for the rising and setting times on different dates. (See also my recent blogs on spherical astronomy).

Of course, at the time, this would have been regarded as rank heresy, especially among the Christians, for whom the geocentric cosmos was an article of faith. And if this was the sole "crime" of Hypatia, she might have become a martyr, but alas she was also trapped between warring political factions. On the one hand was her dear friend and prefect, Orestes, and on the other Cyril, the new Archbishop of Alexandria.

On his ascent, Cyril demanded the high profile pagans of the city come to the Christian temple, kneel, be baptized and accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Orestes was brought to the Temple and a large crowd demanded he prostate himself but he refused. He realized if he did he'd have betrayed Hypatia. He was savagely beaten but managed to leave. Hypatia was close to Orestes and a rumour emerged that it was Hypatia's influence that prevented Orestes from accepting Cyril's spiritual direction and so becoming reconciled to the Church and accepting Christ as Savior.

This was reinforced when Cyril himself confronted her, and begged her to convert to salvation and Jesus, lest she lose her soul, and burn through eternity. He scolded her by saying it was a small thing, just a few words to profess a belief but its benefits for the city would be enormous. Hypatia refused, saying she had to question all beliefs, no matter from whence they came. This was what she did, it was who she was, and she wasn't about to change.

Coupled with the fact that Cyril's lackeys had observed her "devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, [who] beguiled many people through her satanic wiles, and the governor ... through her magic" it did not bode well. Somewhat later, as Hypatia was returning home, she was set upon by a crazed Christian mob and dragged into a church, where she was stripped naked and battered to death with roofing tiles, "and while she was still feebly twitching they beat her eyes out".

These self-righteous savages then tore her body limb from limb, and took her mangled remains out from the church, and burned them. This was the "punishment" she received for refusing to convert to their idiot tyrant god, so small and petulant it couldn't withstand the questioning mind of one frail human woman.

Is there a lesson in all this? You can believe it: that is, to ignore the rants, wails and whines of the preachy, proselytizing Christian morons - as well as their stupid threats- and continue to question ALL religions that demand one "become a mental slave to a tyrant" (to use the words of atheist Christopher Hitchens). As for Hypatia, she remains a model to all skeptics and unbelievers of how to conduct themselves in the face of insanity and the virus of beliefs gone wild.

No comments: