There has been much hot air expended in recent days over the supposed artificially intelligent program Chat-GPT, which is, in reality, a more sophisticated Internet search engine. James Maynard on his website The Cosmic Companion proudly announced that he had used it “to construct a pictorial journey exploring the story of Hypatia!” Having spent some time using my biological intelligence to survey the modern historical literature on the lady and used the information gained to write a blog post, I have decided to don my pedagogical persona and evaluate the results produced by this new program. The full text is below with my comments in italics.
Reconstructing Hypatia of Alexandria Using Artificial Intelligence
Using Chat-GPT and MidJourney to construct a pictorial journey exploring the story of Hypatia – The last great scientist of the ancient age of the western world.
We’ve used generative artificial intelligence to learn about the last great scientist of the ancient age in the western world.
Sorry but Hypatia was not a great scientist and as for being last of the ancient age in the western world, I think Proclus, Boethius, Simplicius, John Philoponus, and a couple of others might like a word. This is a variant on the, “they murdered science when they murdered Hypatia,” myth, more of which gets spewed out in the closing paragraphs.
Hypatia of Alexandria was an accomplished astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher who lived in the final days of the ancient age of science. Born sometime around 360 CE, Hypatia was raised in the cultural and intellectual center of the Mediterranean, Alexandria, by her mathematician father Theon.
We don’t have any direct proof as to how accomplished Hypatia actually was, as none of her writings have survived.
Hypatia dedicated her life to advancing science and reason in an age when dark forces were closing in on her society.
Once again, a statement with no basis in known facts, as we have no evidence to support it and what are these ominous dark forces?
The Great Library of Alexandria, founded just after 300BCE, was once the greatest storehouse of information in the ancient world. The Library was one part of a larger institution of learning, the Musaeum of Alexandria, which also included a grand university.
Hyperbole, the Great Library of Alexandria was one of the great libraries of antiquity. It was part of the Mouseion, why use Musaeum, the Latin name, for a Greek institution in a Greek city? The Mouseion was a research institute, or one might call it an institute of advanced learning. However, there was no university, grand or otherwise.
The root of our English word museum, the term Musaeum originally referred to temples honoring the Muses. Over time, this word came to represent centers of learning.
Nothing to criticize here, but I wonder why articles about Hypatia almost always include sections on the Library and the Mouseion, as both had ceased to exist long before Hypatia was even born?
At the start of the Fifth Century, in the final years of the Alexandrian University, Theon raised his budding scientist in the manner usually reserved for boys — in the father’s trade — in this case, math and science. History leaves us no knowledge about Hypatia’s mother.
What Alexandrian University? Anachronical use of the term scientist is here especially unnecessary as mathematician and astronomer would be more accurate.
Living her life in the cultural and intellectual center of the Mediterranean, Alexandria, Hypatia attended classes and later taught on the ancient grounds of learning, delivering understandable lessons on complex scientific subjects.
Notes based on her teachings are said to cover astronomy, geometry, the use of astrolabes, and more. Hypatia taught classes, some of them to large audiences. Ancient accounts are nearly unanimous in noting her intellectual prowess.
In the normal meaning of the term there are no surviving “notes based on her teachings.” What we have are a handful of general comments on the areas that she taught.
She was a gifted science educator and her works were reported to contain insights on astronomy, geometry, the use of astrolabes, and more.
Very general and rather vague reports, with almost no specifics.
Even her rivals often admired her talents, including John of Nikiu, who stated, “The breadth of her interests is most impressive. Within mathematics, she wrote or lectured on astronomy, geometry, and algebra, and made an advance in computational technique — all this as well as engaging in religious philosophy and aspiring to a good writing style.”
Not a bad review from someone who really doesn’t like you.
What John of Nikiû, who lived more than two hundred years after Hypatia died, actually wrote about her:
In those days a female philosopher appeared in Alexandria, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was completely devoted to magic, astrolabes and music instruments, and she deceived many people through (her) Satanic wiles.
There appears to be something of a discrepancy here between the two accounts!
As violence between Christians, Jewish residents, and Pagans grew, Hypatia assigned herself the task of updating, recording, and safeguarding the mathematical and astronomical knowledge of her age.
This is pure fantasy and has no basis in the known historical facts.
Her fate was sealed in 391 CE, when Emperor Theodosius I issued a decree directing the burning of all Pagan temples.
Let us see what Wikipedia has to say about Theodosius and pagans:
Although Theodosius interfered little in the functioning of traditional pagan cults and appointed non-Christians to high offices, he failed to prevent or punish the damaging of several Hellenistic temples of classical antiquity, such as the Serapeum of Alexandria, by Christian zealots.
We appear to have a contradiction and I know which version I think is correct.
Armed with this acquiescence, Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria, ordered that the center of learning be destroyed. He and his followers carried out the decree, dealing massive destruction to the grounds. Theophilus then ordered a church to be built on the site.
More than 20 years later, in the year 412, he ordered the pillaging of the Serapeum or Temple to Serapis, the Pagan protector of Alexandria. This would prove prophetic.
We have accounts of Theophilius destroying a hidden pagan temple and his followers mocking the pagan artifacts, which led to a riot during which the pagans withdrew to the Serapeum, which Theophilius then destroyed. I know of no center of learning that he supposedly destroyed. The Serapeum had probably earlier been a smaller daughter library to the Library of Alexandria but no longer fulfilled this function when it was destroyed by order of Theophilius, not in 412 but in 391.
There is no center of learning involved. The Serapeum was a center for the Neoplatonism of Iamblichus a rival group to the Neoplatonism of Plotinus to which Hypatia adhered. Theophilius actually tolerated Hypatia’s school, so hardly prophetic.
Cyril, Theophilus’s nephew, was named bishop of the region, and he launched a campaign against Pagan temples and set about expelling the Jewish population from Alexandria. Civil unrest between Pagans, Christians, and the Jewish population broke out into years of violence in the city.
In March 415, followers of Cyril ransacked the remaining classrooms and study rooms, destroying what remained of the greatest institution of learning in the ancient world.
This paragraph is pure fantasy. The Mouseion, which I assume is being referenced here, had ceased to exist a couple of hundred years earlier.
The crowds ambushed Hypatia as she rode through the city. The last great scientist and science educator of the ancient western world was flailed, dismembered, and her remains were paraded through the city and burned in a mockery of Pagan funerary rites.
Hypatia was not “the last great scientist and science educator of the ancient western world.” She wasn’t even a great scientist.
Hypatia’s brutal murder marked the end of science in the west for a thousand years. Europe soon fell into ten centuries of intellectual stagnation that would not lift until the Scientific Renaissance in the middle of the 15th Century.
Remember that myth at the beginning? This whole paragraph is totally and utter hogwash! We have the classic myth about a thousand-year gap in the history of science from 500 CE to 1500 CE. To counter this rubbish, I could recommend several books e.g. Stephen C. McCluskey, “Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe (CUP, 1998), Seb Falk, The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science, (W.W. Norton, 2020), or Edward Grant, Science & Religion 400 BC –AD 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).
Today, Hypatia stands as an example to all science educators to connect with their audience and with those around us. She also broke the gender barrier for science in ancient Europe, an accomplishment for feminism and women that would not be matched until the 18th Century.
We have entered the realm of Hypatia hagiography and mythology.
Hypatia of Alexandria dedicated her life to exploring the mysteries of the Cosmos, and relating her knowledge so that everyone could understand and learn. As darkness closed in on Alexandria, Hypatia spread the light of science for all humanity, and all time.
We are still in the realm of Hypatia hagiography and mythology.
She remains an inspiration to us all.
How this was done:
We do not know exactly what Hypatia of Alexandria or the institution looked like, but there are descriptions in ancient texts, as well as modern insights based on contemporary technologies and insights into history and genetics.
The Cosmic Companion used Chat-GPT to merge information from both ancient and modern sources into the most accurate description of her we could produce.
Facts were checked and cross-referenced with accounts from reliable sources, including Encyclopedia Brittanica, The Smithsonian Institution, and National Geographic. The resulting text was translated, as closely as possible, into a prompt for the artificial intelligence graphics engine MidJourney.
Text was created by a similar AI/human process.
Given the explanation above, what this demonstrates is that you get the results based on the quality of the sources you use, a truism for all historical research, and it is painfully clear that the sources used in this case were totally crap. According to the computer programming rule GIGO–garbage in, garbage out–here Chat-GPT has used garbage sources and produced a garbage text.
If I was grading this apology for an essay as a piece of work handed in by a student, it would of course garner a big fat F for fail.Not only is it factually a total disaster area but it is from style a bizarre collection of fragmentary paragraphs that don’t even add up to a coherent whole. If this is the best that Chat-GPT can do even with human editing, then historians have nothing to fear from this AB i.e., Artificial Bullshit