Thursday, July 31, 2008

About the Blog

In this blog, Gina Hagler and Margaret Balch-Gonzalez share our thoughts as women, science writers, and citizens about the pursuit of scientific knowledge and how it affects our lives. The blog’s name honors Maria Gaetana Agnesi, an extraordinary 18th-century Italian mathematician and social activist. In her day, Agnesi was something of a rock star. But today, she and her works have mostly been forgotten – except for one odd historical accident.

First, some background. Agnesi, born in Milan in 1718, was a child prodigy. Her wealthy and enlightened father doted on her and gave her every educational opportunity he would have given a son. At age 9, she delivered an oration to an academic audience, in Latin, defending the right of women to be educated. By age 11, she spoke 7 languages. In 1748, she published one of the most important mathematics textbooks of the 18th century, in which she integrated, revised, and clarified the work of such well-known contemporaries as Leibnitz, Newton, Kepler, and L’Hopital in the emerging field of infinitesimal calculus.

The book caused a sensation among intellectuals all over Europe. Among her admirers were Pope Benedict XIV and the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria – Italy was under the control of Austria at the time – who presented Agnesi with costly jewels. At a time when women were virtually excluded from academia, the Pope appointed her to a professorship at the University of Bologna, although she never actually accepted the position. Her book was translated into French and English, a sign of its importance.

In his English translation, Cambridge mathematics professor John Colson made a bizarre mistake that might provoke a weary sigh of recognition among 21st-century women dismayed by media representations of Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. Agnesi briefly discussed a mathematical curve known as versiera, or “turn”; Colson mistook the name for avversiera, or “witch.” Ever since, students of mathematics have been surprised to stumble across a relatively minor curve called the Witch of Agnesi that has few noteworthy characteristics other than its startling name.

Ironically, this silly mistranslation allowed Agnesi’s name to linger at the fringes of the public eye far longer than it would have if she had “only” been a brilliant woman revered by her contemporaries. In many ways, her challenges seem like an exaggerated version of the burden on modern women of “doing it all.” After her mother died when Agnesi was 14, she ran her father’s household and raised her siblings, who eventually numbered 20 after her father’s two remarriages. At the same time, she sustained a heavy schedule of demanding intellectual work. Her father showcased her erudition by hosting frequent “salons” – a popular feature of intellectual life at the time – attended by distinguished patricians and scholars.

At age 21, exhausted and disturbed by the lavish lifestyle of her father’s social circle, Agnesi had a breakdown. She begged her father to excuse her from public appearances and allow her to enter a convent. Her father was devastated. They negotiated an agreement that allowed for a simpler, more spiritual lifestyle for Agnesi, and she continued her work in mathematics, philosophy, and science.

But Agnesi’s true passion, inspired by her spiritual values, was social action. After her father died in 1752, Agnesi abandoned intellectual pursuits and devoted the rest of her life to charitable works for poor and sick women, to the consternation of many European intellectuals. In spite of vigorous protests, she insisted on the value of being a whole person, engaged with knowledge for its own sake, but also committed to improving some of the appalling social and economic conditions of her day.

Being a complex, integrated person was hard in Agnesi’s time, and it’s still hard today. Agnesi succeeded at a number of endeavors in the intellectual, domestic, and social realms. She serves as an alternative to a model of accomplishment more familiar to us, patterned on traditional Western male values: dedication to one narrow area, to the exclusion of all other areas, with the goal of winning top ranking over other contenders.

Inspired by Maria Gaetana Agnesi and countless other women and men dedicated to understanding how to acquire and use knowledge to serve their communities, Margaret and Gina humbly invite you to visit our blog, read our weekly posts, and join the conversation with your comments.


Cupillari, Antonella. 2008. A Biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, an Eighteenth-Century Woman Mathematician. Lewiston, NY: Mellen Press.

Mazzotti, Massimo. 2007. The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Messbarger, Rebecca, and Paula Findlen, editors and translators. 2005. Maria Gaetana Agnesi et al.: The Contest for Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Morrow, Charlene, and Teri Perl, editors. 1998. Notable Women in Mathematics: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Richards, Joan L., Professor of History, Brown University. Personal communication.

Weisstein, Eric W. “Witch of Agnesi.” From MathWorld – A Wolfram Web Resource, .