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Women in Astronomy/Astrophysics - Part 1

Space and stars have always been a source of fascination for human beings. Astronomy is considered the oldest science with more than 5 millennia of history. The observation of the stars, celestial phenomena, and the study of the physical properties of objects in the universe still occupies a prominent place today for the scientific community, due to their importance in understanding the mechanisms that govern our universe. As you may have guessed, the history of such a discipline is dotted with great names marked by the significant contributions they have made to it. Many famous people you’ve probably heard of such as Thales, Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Hawkings, etc… However, female names are rare in the collective imagination!

Marie Curie - Credit:

Indeed, when we speak of the history of physics, the feminine name that comes spontaneously to mind is “Marie Curie”. Indeed, she was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, the only woman to have received it twice (Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 with Henri Becquerel and Pierre Curie and Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911) and the only person to date to have received the Nobel Prize in two separate scientific fields. No wonder his name carries so much weight, you’ll tell me!

However in the history of science in general and astronomy in particular many women have made very important contributions. And they are much more numerous than we can imagine having marked at their time the field of observation/study of the universe and its stars. Speaking of stars, precisely…

Antiquity - Hypatia (355 or 370 - 415) called the Star of Alexandria

Imaginary representation of Hypatia of Alexandria by Alfred Seifert (1901). Credit: Wikipedia

The etymology of the Greek word “astronomia” gives us the expression “astron nomas” which means “law of the stars”. The study of the “Law of the Stars” was already of major importance in the ancient world as it had a purely scientific scope, for the understanding of certain natural phenomena (meteorological, for example) but also a philosophical scope.

However, the perception of the study of the stars has changed a lot with time and the level of overall knowledge of the population. Aganice or Aglaonice of Thessaly who lived in the 2nd century BC is often considered the first female astronomer. She was indeed able to predict the total eclipses of the moon and was however considered a witch. It is said that she deceived other women by making them believe that she made the moon disappear.

Commentary of Theon of Alexandria on Book III of the Almagest of Ptolemy.

Hypatia, who lived in late antiquity, is at the origin of many of the first contributions of women to the field of astronomy. Known as the “Star of Alexandria”, Hypatia was a Greek philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician from Alexandria. She was head of the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria, where she taught philosophy (Plato, Aristotle, and other philosophers) and astronomy in the 390s.

Most of Hypatia’s contributions to astronomy concerned mathematics. For example, she wrote a commentary on Apollonios de Perga’s treatise on conical sections never found to this day and created an Astronomical Canon (a set of tables describing the movements of celestial bodies). She is therefore recognized today as one of the greatest mathematicians of her time.

Apart from this independent work, Hypatia was also a teacher and commentator. Among other things, it is thought to have originated the “Commentary of Theon of Alexandria on Book III of the Almagest of Ptolemy, revised edition by my daughter Hypatia, the philosopher” published by her father Theon of Alexandria. Some sources claim, however, that Hypatia corrected Almageste’s text himself and not his father’s commentary. She also contributed to the publishing of Ptolemy’s Astronomical Cannons.

Death of the philosopher Hypatia. Credit: Wikipedia

Hypatia was respected at the time because of her position within the school of Plato, she had a not insignificant political influence. Following a political conflict of succession, she was murdered under the orders of Bishop Cyril of Alexandria, the latter having already in the past with the support of her relatives, tried to make her pass as a witch/satanist in order to discredit her in the eyes of the people. His predecessor, uncle, and mentor Theophilus of Alexandria were indeed fiercely opposed to the teaching of Neoplatonism.

A book about Hypatia’s life was published in 1853 by Charles Kingsley and she became a major figure in the struggle for women’s rights in the 20th century. Although it was known for its tolerance and open-mindedness towards Christians in its time, it was considered during the Enlightenment as a symbol of opposition to Catholicism; a century of enlightenment that is also experiencing many changes in the world of astronomy.

To be continued ...

Written by Bryne T.

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