Going to the movies

The NANAs* Larry Moran at Sandwalk and Murdo MacMeasly at Pharyngoogoo have got their collective knickers in a twist because they haven’t yet had the chance to see Agora the Spanish film, staring Rachel Weisz, about the life of the fourth century Alexandrian mathematician  Hypatia.

Now personally, I’m not really bothered that I haven’t seen the film as there is a strong possibility bordering on certainty that the film is both historically and scientifically crap! Now you may argue that as I haven’t yet seen the film how can I make such a statement? Well let’s start with one of the reasons why the NANAs* are so eager to see it, the film blurb claims that Hypatia was an atheist. There is no evidence what so ever that Hypatia was an atheist and in fact what little we do know strongly suggests that she was anything but. This brings us to the main point , how much do we know? The known facts about Hypatia wouldn’t fill up the back of a postage stamp let alone a 90 minute film script so virtually everything in the film is going to be a product of the script writer’s imagination.

Various commentators at Pharyngoogoo who have seen the film have revealed some of the ‘scientific’ detail in the film Hypatia is presented as heliocentric astronomer who discovers or is on the verge of discovering elliptical orbits! Now none of Hypatia’s writings have survived but she is supposed to have written a commentary on Ptolemaeus’ Syntaxis Mathematiké, however most experts think that this refers to the extensive Ptolemaeus commentary that she wrote together with her father, Theon also an Alexandrian mathematician, and that has survived and is coventionally geocentric.

The thing that most excites the NANAs* is the anecdote about Hypatia’s death as she, being a heathen scientist and philosopher (she was an influential neo-Platonist), was supposedly torn to death by a savage, primitive, Christian  mob. However there are two accounts of her death and it is the second one that is generally accepted as correct by the experts, the film makers of course go with the first. In the second version of the story Hypatia died in a political feud between rival Christian sects. The one sect consisted of the supporters of the Alexandrian Patriarch, Cyril, and the other the supporters of the Prefect,Orestes. Hypathia was a friend and supporter of Orestes as were many of her pupils, some of whom were influential Christians; not quite the ‘Christians kill atheist scientist’ plot that the NANAs* wish for.

NANA = North American New Atheist.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science

17 responses to “Going to the movies

  1. Spoil sport! How utterly rationalistic of you to kill a beautiful myth with ugly facts!

  2. jeb

    New Atheist hagiography. Ive always found it a very fruitfull genre for study with regard to the formation and movement of medieval beliefs.

  3. jeb

    I just spent 5 min. trying to work out if I had made some horrific dyslexic error with that one.


  4. Various commentators at Pharyngoogoo who have seen the film have revealed some of the ‘scientific’ detail in the film Hypatia is presented as heliocentric astronomer who discovers or is on the verge of discovering elliptical orbits!

    Ouch. Does this by any chance include a time-traveling Tycho Brahe? If not, where does she get the precise data for this sort of hypothesis to be at all reasonable?

  5. Really? I haven’t seen that claim before. Do you have a citation? I’m curious how that would work. In order to do that you’d need to already be using a heliocentric model right? The Ptolemaic system recognized that Mercury and Venus were both always near the sun and Mercury has a really high eccentricity, but direct observation of Mercury for much of it its orbit is difficult because it is so close to the sun. I know that some medieval Islamic astronomers suggested that Mercury had a non-circular orbit but that was hundreds of years after Hypatia. Even then, I think they were talking just about the deferent around which Mercury still had an epicycle attached, not the orbit as we would understand it.

    • No it doesn’t have to be heliocentric. If you look at the diagram of the orbit of Mercury in Peuerbach’s New Planetary Theory (Theoricae novae planetarum, Nürnberg, 1472), which is geocentric and which you can find in the Internet, you will see that the orbit of Mercury is elliptical. It was thought for a long time that Peuerbach’s work was original but in the 1960s an Arabic copy of Ptolemaeus’ cosmology (believed lost) turned up and it became obvious that Peuerbach had only copied Ptolemaeus. I don’t know whether the arabic Ptolemaeus has diagrams but the data is the same!

  6. Pingback: The Giant’s Shoulders #25: 2nd Anniversary Edition! « The Dispersal of Darwin

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