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Remember the Ladies: Maria Gaetana Agnesi

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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Maria_Gaetana_AgnesiMaria Gaetana Agnesi (12 September 1718 – 9 January 1799 exact date unknown) was an Italian mathematician and philosopher. She was the first woman to write a mathematics handbook and the first woman appointed as a Mathematics Professor at a University. She is credited with writing the first book discussing both differential and integral calculus and was an honorary member of the faculty at the University of Bologna.

She devoted the last four decades of her life to studying theology (especially patristics) and to charitable work and serving the poor. This extended to helping the sick by allowing them entrance into her home where she set up a hospital. She was a devout Christian and wrote extensively on the marriage between intellectual pursuit and mystical contemplation, most notably in her essay Il cielo mistico (The Mystic Heaven). She saw the rational contemplation of God as a complement to prayer and contemplation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Maria Teresa Agnesi Pinottini, clavicembalist and composer, was her sister.

Contributions to mathematics

First page of Instituzioni analitiche (1748)

First page of Instituzioni analitiche (1748)

According to Dirk Jan Struik, Agnesi is “the first important woman mathematician since Hypatia (fifth century A.D.)”. The most valuable result of her labours was the Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventù italiana, (Analytical Institutions for the Use of Italian Youth) which was published in Milan in 1748 and “was regarded as the best introduction extant to the works of Euler.” In the work, she worked on integrating mathematical analysis with algebra. The first volume treats of the analysis of finite quantities and the second of the analysis of infinitesimals. A French translation of the second volume by P. T. d’Antelmy, with additions by Charles Bossut (1730–1814), was published in Paris in 1775; and Analytical Institutions, an English translation of the whole work by John Colson (1680–1760), the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, “inspected” by John Hellins, was published in 1801 at the expense of Baron Maseres. The work was dedicated to Empress Maria Theresa, who thanked Agnesi with the gift of a diamond ring, a personal letter, and a diamond and crystal case. Many others praised her work, including Pope Benedict XIV, who wrote her a complimentary letter and sent her a gold wreath and a gold medal.

The Instituzioni analitiche…, among other things, discussed a curve earlier studied and constructed by Pierre de Fermat and Guido Grandi. Grandi called the curve versoria in Latin and suggested the term versiera for Italian, possibly as a pun: ‘versoria’ is a nautical term, “sheet”, while versiera/aversiera is “she-devil”, “witch”, from Latin Adversarius, an alias for “devil” (Adversary of God). For whatever reasons, after translations and publications of the Instituzioni analitiche… the curve has become known as the “Witch of Agnesi”.

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