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Women In Ancient Astronomy

Hypatia Of Alexandria And Queen Seondeok Of Silla

Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia of AlexandriaHypatia of Alexandria was born during the late fourth century. However the exact date of her birth is uncertain, but records suggest sometime between 350 and 370 AD. Even though she lived in Egypt, she also studied in Greece and is considered by many as the first notable female mathematician and astronomer, which she explored alongside her philosophy teachings. Hypatia was the first woman to make a substantial contribution to the development of mathematics and wrote books on both mathematics and astronomy. She was a strong advocate of the Plotinus way of thinking, which encouraged logical thinking and mathematical studies, and she eventually became the head of the Platonist school at Alexandria in around 400 AD. She primarily taught philosophy, in particular, the works of Plato and Aristotle. People would travel from other cities to hear Hypatia lecture on different topics. According to the Byzantine encyclopaedia The Suda, her father Theon was also a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher and was the last head of the Museum at Alexandria. The library of Alexandria was the idea of Alexander the Great. Although he never lived to see it, Alexander wanted a place where scholars from all over the world and from all cultures could come together and share knowledge.

The dream was realised when one of his generals built the library. According to the late Carl Sagan, the building had over 1 million scrolls at its height and that had the library not been burned down we might have made it to the moon long before 1,000 A.D. The amount of scientific, literary and historical texts and data that were lost is nothing less than astounding. Hypatia was one of the last teachers to work at the library before its untimely destruction.

Hypatia’s most notable contributions to astronomy and science include the charting of celestial bodies and the invention of the hydrometer, used to determine the relative density and gravity of liquids. She is most well known in mathematics for her work on conic sections, introduced by Apollonius, which divided cones into different parts by a plane, which developed the ideas of hyperbolas, parabolas and ellipses. She edited the works On the Conics of Apollonius making them easy to understand, and thus allowing the work to survive the course of time. Hypatia did not act like ‘normal’ women at the time – she dressed in the clothing of a scholar or teacher rather than in traditional women’s clothes and drove her own chariot in order to move freely around the Empire. She would don a philosopher’s cloak and preach freely about Plato or Aristotle.

Hypatia’s prominence was accentuated by the fact that she was both female and pagan in an increasingly Christian environment. Shortly before her death, Cyril was made the Christian bishop of Alexandria, and a conflict arose between Cyril and the prefect Orestes. Orestes was disliked by some Christians and was a friend of Hypatia, and rumours started that Hypatia was to blame for the conflict. In the spring of 415 C.E., the situation reached a tragic conclusion when a band of Christian monks seized Hypatia on the street, beat her, and dragged her body to a church where they mutilated her flesh with sharp tiles and burned her remains.

However, her legacy lived on. Her students fled to Athens, where the study of mathematics flourished, and the school she headed in Alexandria continued until Arabs invaded in 642 AD. It is said that many of her works which were housed in the library of Alexandria were destroyed by Arab conquerors – their existence is known only through letters exchanged between her contemporaries. It is also said that she had the form of Aphrodite & the spirit of Plato. A truly remarkable woman, she excelled in sundry fields of intellectual endeavour at a time when women were supposed to be silent and were thought of as stupid.

Queen Seondeok of Silla

Queen Seondeok of SillaHer birth date is unconfirmed but possibly about 610 – 17 February 647. After her father died, as the oldest of his three daughters she reigned as Queen Regnant of Silla, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, from 632 to 647. She was Silla’s twenty-seventh ruler and its first reigning queen. She was the second female sovereign in East Asian history and encouraged a renaissance in thought, literature, and the arts in Silla. She was very interested in astronomy and built the “Tower of the Moon and Stars” considered to be the first dedicated observatory in the Far East. It was used for observing the stars in order to forecast the weather.

According to the Samguk Yusa, (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) which is a collection of legends, folktales and historical accounts relating to the Three Kingdoms of Korea (Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla), Cheomseongdae translates to star-gazing tower or star gazing platform in Korean was constructed under the reign of Queen Seondeok (632-647) near the capital of the kingdom.

Cheomseongdae is a cylindrical structure and is a beautiful combination of straight lines and curves composed of 362 granite blocks, which some claim represents the 362 days of the lunar year. In total, there are 27 circular layers of stones, a number believed to reference the 27th ruler, Queen Seondeok.

The tower is 5.7 meters (17ft) wide at the base and 9.4 meters (31ft) tall. Roughly 4.16m up from the bottom there is a 1㎡ square entrance and a space to hang a ladder under it. The inside is filled with soil up to the 12th level, and the 19th, 20th, 25th, and 26th levels all have long rocks hanging on two areas, shaped as the Chinese letter ‘井’ (Jeong). The opening appears to be the access for star gazers. The opening faces south and it was created to allow sunlight to fall onto a point on the floor at the spring and autumnal Equinox and when the Sun crossed the meridian. The opening was designed in such a way that it did not receive the light of the Sun at the summer solstice. So the tower was used as a calendar, accurately indicating the passage of the four seasons.

This numbers game continues further, as an opening is placed strategically with 12 layers of stones above and 12 layers below, symbolising the months of the year or the signs of the Zodiac. And if that weren’t enough symbolism for one small building, the four-sided base is also thought to represent the seasons.

Cheomseongdae. Image Source :www.atlasobscura.com Cheomseongdae at night. Image Source :www.atlasobscura.com

Cheomseongdae is the oldest surviving observatory in Asia and perhaps the world. It dates to the 7th century to the time of the kingdom of Silla. The tower still stands in the old Silla capital of Gyeongju, South Korea and remains mostly intact. However, its role in astronomy was not recognised until about a century ago and it was a study in 2001 that confirmed its use. In fact, the importance of Cheomseongdae in both the histories of Korea and astronomy, earned it the distinction as the country’s 31st national treasure on December the 20th, 1962 and its image can even be found on Korean coins.

Comments from visitors vary on this observatory building but the surrounding parkland is apparently very picturesque. My bucket list is getting longer!

Credit Source: The Unforgotten Sisters: Female Astronomers and Scientists before Caroline Herschel by Gabriella Bernardi, plato2051.tripod.com & New World Encyclopedia.

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