Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Maria Gaetana Agnesi

A Catholic and a witch? Our April Fool paradox is perhaps the most brilliant scientist of all we'll consider.

According to the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799) is "the first woman in the Western world who can accurately be called a mathematician." She was the oldest of 21 children; her father was a professor of mathematics at the University of Bologna, and encouraged her interest in scientific matters. She was brilliant at languages: "By age eleven, she was thoroughly familiar with Greek, German, Spanish, and Hebrew." In 1748, she wrote a massive work (over 1000 pages) on teaching mathematics to the young - it was in Italian but "won acclaim in academic circles all over Europe" and was translated into English. (Another book to hunt for.)

She is famous for the "Witch" of Agnesi, a certain curve known as the "versiera" (from the Latin vertere to turn):

[image from the CRC Handbook of Standard Mathematical Tables]

For more see here.

But Maria was not simply a brilliant writer, linguist, and mathematician. She was also a very serious Catholic:
The recognition of greatest significance to Agnesi was provided in two letters from Pope Benedict XIV. The first, dated June 1749, a congratulatory note on the occasion of the publication of her book, was accompanied by a gold medal and a gold wreath adorned with precious stones. In his second letter, dated September 1750, the pope appointed her to the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy at Bologna. [DSB]

After her father's death in 1752, she retired from all scientific work, and devoted herself to religious work and study, making great material sacrifices to help the poor in her parish. "Maria then devoted herself to the study of theology and the Fathers of the Church." Finally, a long-held desire for the religious life was satisfied: "after acting for some years as the director of the Hospice Trivalzio of the Blue Nuns in Milan, she joined the order and died a member of it, in her 81st year." [CE]

See the Catholic Encyclopedia for more.


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