HYPATIA, life and dreams of a 4 th century scientist

A. COLAVITO, A. PETTA – HYPATIA,, life and dreams HYPATIA, life and dreams of a 4th century scientist by ADRIANO PETTA and ANTONINO COLAVITO tra...
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A. COLAVITO, A. PETTA – HYPATIA,, life and dreams

HYPATIA, life and dreams of a 4th century scientist




translated from the Italian by

Donald Hope and Derek Adie Flower


A. COLAVITO, A. PETTA – HYPATIA,, life and dreams

© Copyright by La Lepre Edizioni – First Edition: september 2009 Via delle Fornaci, 425 – 00165 Roma (Italy) [email protected] www.lalepereedizioni.com ISBN 88-488-0420-9 (Originally published in Italy in 2005 under the title Hypatia, scientist of Alexandria by Lampi di stampa)

All right reserved No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical or photographic, by recording or any information storage or retrieval system or method now known or to be invented or adapted, without prior permission obtained in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer quoting brief passages in a review written for inclusion in a journal, magazine, newspaper or broadcast.


A. COLAVITO, A. PETTA – HYPATIA,, life and dreams

In memory of my fraternal friend and co-author Antonino Colavito: first of that bright day of May where he set out towards the high skies of our Hypatia, taught me our little unique life will resound as the best of impossible worlds where our body will become light. And also to Margherita Hack, the great Italian astrophysics, who, as just Hypatia did, tries to make known the astronomy, the science and the use of Reason especially among people. Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921), U.S.A. astronomer, who put in relation the dimension of the stars and their clearness, so that was possible to measure the distances among galaxies: the predominant opinion of the time was the Universe limited to the Milky Way. Vera Rubin (Philadelphia,1928), ignored and snubbed by male scientific community, realised that 90% of the mass of the Milky Way lacked, discovering the Dark Material Lisa Randall, first woman who obtained a chair in Princeton Physics University Department, in MIT Theoretical Physics and in Harvard: is authoress of one of the most accredited models of a Pluridimensional Universe.


A. COLAVITO, A. PETTA – HYPATIA,, life and dreams

Adriano Petta, a scholar of mediaeval history and the history of science, has published with Stampa Alternativa the historical fictions Eresia Pura (March 2001) and Roghi Fatui (February 2002), and Assiotea (October 2009) * * * Antonino Colavito, an avid reader fascinated by most disparate forms of Knowledge, and notwithstanding a writer who sees himself as a non specialist and a lover of voyages through time. * * * Derek Adie Flower, who lives in Rome, was brought up in Alexandria and has written nonfiction works to do with Egypt, notably «The Shores of Wisdom. The Story of the Ancient library of Alexandria», and the shortly to be published «Egypt, A traveller’s History», spanning 5200 years. He has also written novels, «Farewell Alexandria» and «Beyond the White Walls», both set in Egypt, and which will shortly be brought to life on the screen. * * * Donald Hope (Birmingham, 1932), has been painter, teacher of drawing and of the history of art (in West Africa and in London), and is now an occasional writer, and translator mainly from Italian; as such he has previously worked for the publisher Marco Cosimo Panini, of Modena, and for the Museo Antropologico di Firenze, among other occasional employers. He lives at present near Grosseto, in the southernmost province of Toscana.


A. COLAVITO, A. PETTA – HYPATIA,, life and dreams


by Margherita Hack

This is a historical novel that re-evokes the century and the society in which there lived the first women scientist of whose life and works we have ample testimony. The authors have availed themselves of a vast bibliography, from which emerges, after 16 centuries, the figure of this young women in all its human aspects, public and private: her daily life, her conversations and arguments with the common people, with her pupils, and with other scientists. Hypatia was born in Alexandria, in Egypt, about 370 A.D., and was the daughter of the mathematician Theon. She was brutally murdered in March 415 – victim of a religious fundamentalism that saw in her an enemy of Christianity, perhaps because of her friendship with the Roman imperial prefect Orestes, who was a political opponent of Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria. Despite her friendship with Sinesius, the bishop of Ptolemais, who came to her lectures, the fundamentalists among the Christians feared that her Neo-Platonic philosophy and her freedom of thought were exercising a pagan influence on the Christian community of Alexandria. The murder of Hypatia must be seen as yet another appalling episode in that repudiation of culture and of science which had already in the third century A.D., long before Hypatia’s birth, brought about the destruction of the extraordinary library of Alexandria, which is said to have held something like half a million volumes, and was burnt down by Roman soldiers; and which later, during Hypatia’s lifetime, caused the sacking of the library of the Serapeum. Of her written works nothing at all remains; we now have only some letters written to her by Sinesius, consulting her about how to construct an astrolabe and a hydroscope. After her death many of her students left Alexandria, and that city, which had long been such a famous cultural metropolis of the ancient world, and whose hub and symbol the great library had been, began inexorably to decline. The picture of Hypatia herself that ancient writers have left us, is that of a person of rare modesty and beauty, of great eloquence, known as the leading spirit of the Neo-Platonic Alexandrian school of thought.


A. COLAVITO, A. PETTA – HYPATIA,, life and dreams

Hypatia is thus indeed also a symbolic figure, emblematic of that love of truth, of reason and of science, that was the great glory of the Hellenic civilisation. Her sacrificial murder marks the beginning of that long, dark age during which the forces of religious fundamentalism try all they can to stifle human reason. How many other martyrs of thought were hideously tortured and murdered! On the 17th of February 1600, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for heresy; he who had written: “There are in existence innumerable suns; innumerable earths revolve around them, as the seven planets revolve around our sun. These worlds are inhabited by living creatures.” And Galileo, a convinced proponent of the Copernican theory – for which his discovery of the four larger satellites of Jupiter furnished an indirect proof – was forced to abjure his views. Such fundamentalism is not dead. Even today people kill and are killed in name of religion. Even in our materially so civilised, industrial countries, there are absurd outbreaks of obscurantism: as when in some parts of the so highly civilised United States of America it is forbidden for schools to teach the Darwinian theory of evolution, and they are compelled to teach creationism. On this path back to the Middle Ages our lady minister of Public Instruction (or should we say Destruction?) has now set out, by trying to eliminate the teaching of Darwin’s theory from the curriculum of our elementary and middle schools. Why? Out of mere ignorance? Or to ingratiate herself with a Catholic Church which, as far as I can see, has actually no wish to reengage in these battles, already lost long ago? This novelised, but true story of Hypatia, shows us even today how black and how obstinately rooted can be the hatred of reason, and the contempt for science: a lesson not to be forgotten, and a book that everyone should read. Trieste, February 2005


A. COLAVITO, A. PETTA – HYPATIA,, life and dreams

authors’ note A TELLING WITHOUT PITY by Adriano Petta


first came across Hypatia when I was preparing the introductory note to my historical novel (Roghi fatui: Fatuous fires), which together with Eresia pura (Pure heresy), represents my contribution to an analysis of the struggle between Science and Religion, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. I could only devote six lines, then, to that Alexandrian woman scientist: enough, however, to set the spark of my curiosity alight. And from my first investigations of the historical sources I realised that in order to retell the story of this great figure (who appears in the works of Pierre de Fermat, Chateaubriand, Voltaire, Proust, Toland, Fielding, Diderot, Gibbon, Wieland, Péguy, Leopardi, Monti, Pascal, Luzi, Calvino and innumerable other writers) I needed not only a novelist’s pen (my own, written in the printed text in roman type) but also a philosopher’s demonstration of the intricacies of symbolism and valuation involved (printed as the dreams, in italic type in the text). Thus began my cooperation with Antonino Colavito, whose pen has traversed Hypatia’s skies heights (the dreams, Part four) their flickering cloud of atoms… luminous cloud in which has been dispersed the bloodstained filthiness of my fragmented narrative. A pitiless narration for the butchers and assassins who, with premeditated ferocity, put an end to Hypatia’s life during Lent of the year 415 A.D. Hypatia was heir to the School of Alexandria, the most important scientific community in history, in which had studied Archimedes, Aristarcus of Samos, Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, Euclid, Ptolemy… and all those people of genius who laid the foundations of all scientific knowledge. She was a neoplatonic philosopher, musicologist, doctor of medicine, scientist, mathematician, astronomer, the mother of experimental science (she invented and constructed the astrolabe, the hydroscope and the aerometer)… and, as Pascal wrote, la dernière, merveilleuse fleur de la gentillesse et de la science hellénique. During its seven hundred years of existence the School of Alexandria had reached such elevated peaks of achievement in the field of science, that it would have


A. COLAVITO, A. PETTA – HYPATIA,, life and dreams

been enough to leave Hypatia and her pupils alive and free to pursue their studies, to have secured another 1200 years of scientific progress. But on Hypatia and on the whole of humanity there fell the grossest of misfortunes: the rise to power of the catholic Church and the pact of blood sealed between it and the agonizing Roman empire. This pact – apart from the suppression of paganism – provided for the destruction of the libraries, of science and of the scientists themselves and the abolition of free thought and of scientific research (at the councils of Carthage, in fact, it was forbidden to everyone – bishops included – to study the works of Aristotle, Plato, Euclid, Ptolemy, Pythagoras etc.). Women were to be prevented from taking part in religion, from attending school, from practising any art or science. In the course of a few decades this plan was almost entirely realised. But Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Augustine and Cyril – the giants of the dawning empire of the Church – found in their path, already blackened with fire and paved with blood, one last impediment: a young and very beautiful creature at the head of the School of Alexandria, a scientist of inflexible moral rectitude, who at the end of a day of study and research would throw around her shoulders the tribon – the philosopher’s mantle – and would go around Alexandria explaining to people – with rhetorical brilliance and extraordinary wisdom – what was meant by freedom of thought and the use of reason. And Cyril, bishop and patriarch of Alexandria, plotted the martyrdom of Hypatia. To unjustly kill the most ordinary of human beings is to cut short a life, to shatter some possibility, but to slaughter such a creature as Hypatia is to wreak incalculable havoc against the whole of humanity, to kill the hope of human progress. This crime marked the end of paganism, the decline of science and the destruction of the very dignity of woman. It sealed the definitive ascendancy of the most astute, refined, voracious, ruthless and ferocious clique of men ever produced by the human race: from that month of March of the year 415 A.D. the Catholic Church, besides imprisoning, torturing and burning entire populations alive, enchained the minds of men in order to manipulate, direct and dominate them, allying itself always with the ruling power and with injustice. No mea culpa can ever atone to the human race for the shedding of so much innocent blood and for so many centuries of progress prevented.


A. COLAVITO, A. PETTA – HYPATIA,, life and dreams

In that year of 415 A.D. the lonely voice of the imperial prefect Orestes was of no avail, as he tried in vain to defend and to save Hypatia. When he arrived in Alexandria, before calling on the magister militiae (the local military commander) and the other civic authorities, before even paying his respects to the bishop Cyril… Orestes went to pay homage to Hypatia, that pure star of culture and of learning. From her he learned that she could not really call herself a pagan, because “any religion, any dogma, is a hindrance to unfettered research, and can become a prison that prevents one from freely investigating the origins of life and the destiny of man”. Hypatia told him how, after the burning of the library, the imperial prefect Evagrius had suggested that she convert to Christianity in exchange for more generous subsidies to her School, and that she had declined the offer, telling him: “If I let myself be bought, I am no longer free. And I will not be able to go on with my research. That’s how a free mind works: it too has its own laws”. This book has been written to honour the memory of the first martyr for Reason, who preferred to be murdered rather than to renounce her freedom of thought, that indispensable condition of human progress. At the beginning of this third millennium, UNESCO, at the request of 190 of its member states, has set up an international project intended to promote the scientific endeavours of women of all nationalities, because if Science is really to serve the real needs of humanity, it is urgently necessary to create a better equilibrium between the sexes in taking part in scientific work. At present in that sphere only 5% of the participants are women. Unesco has called this international project: Hypatia. This new edition is published in the Astronomy International Year, 2009: I dedicate it to all women who – fight against a misogynous society which has always ignored and opposed to – have stubbornly succeeded in leaving their mark in this branch of science that is opening to us not the impossible sky of religions… but the path of real skies, done of light and particles. Adriano Petta


(Rome, March 2009)

A. COLAVITO, A. PETTA – HYPATIA,, life and dreams


In researching the life of a famous person, it’s essential to investigate the

historical period, and thence the relation of the protagonist to the events of his (or her) time, stretching from politics to religion, from scientific and philosophical research to the more intimate sphere of the affections. And the resulting biography tends to remain within such contexts, leaving the reader perplexed in the face of an extraordinary story, in which the principal characters dominate and determine events, even those which have a tragic outcome, that may for centuries to come affect not only the thoughts of great men and women, but also the behaviour, the ways of thought and the motive principles of the masses of humanity. A perplexity due to the author’s inability to succeed in explaining the deepest meaning of his (or her) subject’s life, when the biographer has not succeeded in possessing himself of, nor therefore of transmitting, the reasons for the charisma, the influence, the force of his (or her) subject, for all those factors that tend towards a transformation of the world that is not to be checked by persecutions, trials, long years of imprisonment, nor by the infliction of appalling means of death. In writing about the life of Hypatia, this question is posed in its most dramatic form, both because of the paucity of the historical sources and the almost total absence of extant works, or even fragments of works, of hers, and because her name, known as that of one of the greatest minds of all time, has come down through the centuries to reach our lives with all the force of youth, with the aura of a smile, such as to compel some kind of faith in the qualities of mankind, as if she herself were alive among us, a great scientist and a woman of our own day. But perhaps she really is alive, not only a fond memory in our minds, but alive in the hopes of humanity, in the search for a life without violence, in the free development of all the fields of knowledge and in the sharing of discoveries, physically alive as a quivering cloud of atoms that partakes of our bodies and transmits an impulse of life. Who was Hypatia? We, writers who belong to no academy, have tried to understand the woman and the scientist, and her life with its passions and intellectual endeavours. In this novel which is perhaps not just a novel, she speaks with our voices and with those of the greatest scientists and philosophers and artists, from Thales, Heraclitus, Pythagoras,


A. COLAVITO, A. PETTA – HYPATIA,, life and dreams

Democritus and Epicurus, to Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Ovidius, Apuleius, to those of modern times, from Giordano Bruno, Galileo and Newton to Einstein, Heisenberg and other great physicists of the twentieth century, and from the Harmonics of Aristoxenus to our modern experimental music, Their voices are her voice, their thought her thought, their discoveries are her discoveries, and we storytellers have crossed the abyss of the centuries with these wonderful travellingcompanions, and together with them we have admired a woman who lived long ago, who discussed ideas with her pupils, who studied music and the stars, who investigated the invisible, and light and time and the force of gravity, who struggled for the freedom of research from dogma, and for the people of her city. And when she was murdered we were there, with her, spectators and participants in an eternal drama that is part of the history of mankind. The events that happen in the universe are all connected with one another, in a geometrical network of measurable distances, surfaces, and intervals of time, the whole being a space of four dimensions, or spacetime. Whenever bonds in it are created or destroyed, the change in it is felt in the whole universe: so the information is transmitted everywhere. Consequently, what happened in Alexandria in Egypt has been in some way diffused throughout this web of interrelation, in geometrical waves that have struck and affected minds and bodies. And thus events far removed and hidden from the seats of power can touch the chords of our feelings, and compel our soul to listen to an old, precious, heartrending song… Antonino Colavito (Rome, November 2003)