Ancient women in astronomy

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Yesterday night I went to the cinema (yes, Lowell, in the end I made it…) and saw Agora, the last movie by Alejandro Amenabar (premiered in Germany on March 13). What does this have to do with astronomy? Well, as you may know, it tells the story of Hypatia, a scholar in the ancient Alexandria, who has worked in mathematics and astronomy. It was the last show of the day and I was alone in the room, which made the whole thing quite different from the usual visit to a cinema. In the adjacent room they were giving Shutter Island, attended by a lot many more people ;-)

If you watch the movie as such, then you come out saying it is beautiful. Especially if you are an astronomer. The mixture between the dark night sky and the outstanding reconstruction of the ancient Alexandria is stunning. Also, Hypatia incarnates the figure of the pure scientists, who sticks to her principles and ideas, at the price of her own life. All the more because Hypatia was a woman (beautifully plaid by a splendid Rachel Weisz).

The price one has to pay for making the story attractive (and appealing to to great public), is that lots of dramatic license has to be used. One for all. Hypatia is known to have worked on the conical sections, that is a fact. But at the end of the movie we are explicitly told that she arrived at the conclusion that the planets had to move on elliptical orbits, with the sun on what we would now call one of the two foci. This is clearly the first law of Kepler, anticipated by some 12 centuries and derived by pure deduction. Besides lacking any historical proof, this is simply too hard to swallow. All planets have has a matter of fact very small eccentricities (Mercury is the only exception), making their orbits very close to a circle. It is only when it comes to precise measurements that one sees their effect (Kepler had the Tycho’s data to derive his laws). In fact, I completely failed to follow the line of thought Hypatia uses to derive Kepler’s first law.

But this is not the only problem with the movie. There are several historical “licenses” or even mistakes. You can find a critical review here, which I found very interesting and stimulating. For the goofs have a look here.

However, the movie is certainly inspirational and worth watching. Just be aware that many of the things you are presented with are interpretations, dramatic licenses and, in some cases, even inventions.

2 Responses to Ancient women in astronomy

  1. Elmer Varga says:

    Hello Nando,
    I teach Basic Astronomy at the University of the Third Age (U3A) in Adelaide, South Australia. Part of the course is a selection of Ancient Women Astronomers – with your Subjectline above (Ancient women in astronomy, wrt AGORA/Hypatia), I was wondering whether you might have an interest in this topic?

    I am looking for an authoritative reference to establish whether or not there was a woman astronomer/astrologer, Aganike c.1878BC, who was supposedly the daughter of the Pharaoh Sesostris, or maybe simply part of his Court.

    Would appreciate any information, if you can help.
    Elmer Varga

  2. Nando Patat says:

    Hi, Elmer. Thanks for the note. No, unfortunately I do not have any idea about Aganike. You migtht want to subscribe to HASTRO-L and post an inquiry there.



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