The Parrot's Theorem Assignment

From The Primary Sources for the Life and Work of Hypatia of Alexandria by Michael A. B. Deakin Historians need to say of the past events they recount not only what happened but also how we know it. This latter question is usually answered by references to sources, that is to say earlier accounts of the matter in hand. We distinguish between two types of source: primary and secondary. The former are those that cannot be traced back any further, the latter those that in their turn do depend on earlier accounts. Primary sources are not necessarily correct in all their detail (indeed those for Hypatia contradict one another in places), but secondary sources should not, without good reason, go beyond what the primary sources assert. Primary sources can however require interpretation and assessment; this is the role of a good secondary source. Indeed secondary sources are vital unless one has the necessary linguistic, historical and cultural background oneself to assess the primary sources. Finally it should be said that works of fiction (whether the fiction is intentional or not!) are not historical sources at all. Regrettably much of what is readily available on Hypatia derives from fictional, rather than historical, sources. Hypatia (from The Parrot's Theorem) At the end of the fourth century, a family of famous mathematicians lived in Alexandria: Theon and his two children Hypatia and Epiphanus. It was Theon who first set down the method of calculation of the square root, while Hypatia, his daughter, did remarkable work extrapolating the discoveries of Apollonius, Diophantus and Ptolemy. Epiphanus also worked on Ptolemy's astronomical theories, but was less talented than his sister.

Like her Greek colleagues of old, Hypatia was not only a mathematician but a philosopher and taught both subjects. Hundreds of pupils flocked to her lessons, in awe of her intelligence, her knowledge and her beauty. All of these were anathema to the new moral order which ruled Alexandria. Hypatia was a liberated woman.

In AD 415 the people of Alexandria attacked her chariot, stripped Hypatia and carried her off. She was tortured with oyster shells sharpened like knives and burned alive.

In class on Tuesday February 11th, we analyzed the reliability of this entry based on Dr. Sarah's research and discussion with math historian Edith Prentice Mendez, an expert on Hypatia. We discussed portions of the entry that are reliable because they are related to statements made in ancient references, and we highlighted other portions of this entry that were suspect or false. In previous classes, we have also discussed fictional (and incorrect) accounts of Hypatia and how they propagated to other sources.

Your Assignment Choose a mathematician other than Hypatia who is mentioned in The Parrot's Theorem in a meaningful way. Research and write a report on the reliability of the related content in The Parrot's Theorem. You must use numerous book and web references and attempt to get as close to primary sources as possible. Your grade will be based on the quality of your references and the clarity and depth of your report. Choosing a mathematician with an entry that has portions which are suspect or under debate is encouraged and will be rewarded. In your report, you must give proper reference to ideas. In addition, in your bibliography, after each reference, you must describe the reference and give information about the author (Are they a math historian?, ...).