Maria Gaetana Agnesi

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Maria Gaetana Agnesi
Maria Gaetana Agnesi.jpg
Born (1718-05-16)16 May 1718
Milan
Died 9 January 1799(1799-01-09) (aged 80)
Nationality Italian
Fields Mathematics
Institutions University of Bologna
Known for Namesake of the Witch of Agnesi curve
Notes
Oldest of 23 children

Maria Gaetana Agnesi[1] (16 May 1718 – 9 January 1799) was an Italian mathematician and philosopher.

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.[2]

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 help the sick by allowing them entrance in her home where she set up a hospital.[3]

Maria Teresa Agnesi Pinottini, clavicembalist and composer, was her sister.

Early life[edit]

Maria Gaetana Agnesi was born in Milan on 16 May 1718, to a wealthy and literate family.[4][5][6] Her father Pietro Agnesi, a University of Bologna mathematics professor,[7] wanted to elevate his family into the Milanese nobility. In order to achieve his goal he had married Anna Fortunata Brivio in 1717. Her mother's death provided her the excuse to retire from public life. She took over management of the household.

Agnesi's diploma from Università di Bologna

Maria was recognized early on as a child prodigy; she could speak both Italian and French at five years of age. By her eleventh birthday she had also learned Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, German, and Latin, and was referred to as the "Seven-Tongued Orator".[7] She even educated her younger brothers. When she was nine years old she composed and delivered an hour-long speech in Latin to some of the most distinguished intellectuals of the day. The subject was women's right to be educated.

Agnesi suffered a mysterious illness at the age of 12 that was attributed to her excessive studying and was prescribed vigorous dancing and horseback riding. This treatment did not work - she began to experience extreme convulsions, after which she was encouraged to pursue moderation. By age fourteen she was studying ballistics and geometry.[7] When she was fifteen her father began to regularly gather in his house a circle of the most learned men in Bologna,[citation needed] before whom she read and maintained a series of theses on the most abstruse philosophical questions. Records of these meetings are given in Charles de Brosses' Lettres sur l'Italie and in the Propositiones Philosophicae, which her father had published in 1738 as an account of her final performance, where she defended 190 theses.[7] Maria was very shy in nature and did not like these meetings.[citation needed]

Her father remarried twice after Maria's mother died, and Maria Agnesi ended up the eldest of 23 children, including her half-siblings. In addition to her performances and lessons, her responsibility was to teach her siblings. This task kept her from her own goal of entering a convent, as she had become strongly religious. Although her father refused to grant this wish, he agreed to let her live from that time on in an almost conventual semi-retirement, avoiding all interactions with society and devoting herself entirely to the study of mathematics.[7] During that time, Maria studied both differential and integral calculus. Fellow philosophers thought she was extremely beautiful and her family was recognized as one of the wealthiest in Milan. Maria became a professor at the University of Bologna.

Contributions to mathematics[edit]

Instituzioni analitiche[edit]

First page of Instituzioni analitiche (1748)

The most valuable result of her labours was the Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventù italiana, which was published in Milan in 1748 and "was regarded as the best introduction extant to the works of Euler." [8] In the work, she worked on integrating mathematical analysis with algebra.[7] 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 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.[9] 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.[7]

Witch of Agnesi[edit]

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,[10] possibly as a pun:[11] '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".

Other[edit]

Agnesi also wrote a commentary on the Traité analytique des sections coniques du marquis de l'Hôpital, which, though highly praised by those who saw it in manuscript, was never published.[12]

Bust of Maria Gaetana Agnesi in Milan.

Later life[edit]

In 1750, on the illness of her father, she was appointed by Pope Benedict XIV to the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy and physics at Bologna, though she never served.[7] She was the second woman ever to be granted professorship at a university, Laura Bassi being the first.[13] In 1751, she became ill again and was told not to study by her doctors. After the death of her father in 1752 she carried out a long-cherished purpose by giving herself to the study of theology, and especially of the Fathers and devoted herself to the poor, homeless, and sick, giving away the gifts she had received and begging for money to continue her work with the poor. In 1783, she founded and became the director of the Opera Pia Trivulzi, a home for Milan's elderly, where she lived as the nuns of the institution did.[7]

Remembrance[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Agnesi: Italian pronunciation: [a.ˈɲe.zi]; the "gn" digraph is pronounced with the palatal nasal /ɲ/
  2. ^ According to Dirk Jan Struik, Agnesi is "the first important woman mathematician since Hypatia (fifth century A.D.)".
  3. ^ Alic, Margaret (1986). Hypatia's Heritage. 124 Shoreditch High Street: The Women's Press. p. 138. ISBN 0-7043-3954-4. 
  4. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg "Maria Gaetana Agnesi". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  5. ^ Maria Gaetana Agnesi
  6. ^ http://press.princeton.edu/books/maor/sidebar_f.pdf
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey (1986). Women in science : antiquity through the nineteenth century : a biographical dictionary with annotated bibliography (3. print. ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-15031-X. 
  8. ^ CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Maria Gaetana Agnesi
  9. ^ Analytical institutions... (four volumes), London, 1801 vol. 1, p. PR3, at Google Books
  10. ^ C. Truesdell, "Correction and Additions for 'Maria Gaetana Agnesi'", Archive for History of Exact Science 43 (1991), 385–386. doi:10.1007/BF00374764
    • Per Grandi: "...nata da' seni versi, che da me suole chiamarsi la Versiera in latino pero Versoria..."
  11. ^ S.M.Stigler, "Cauchy and the witch of Agnesi: An historical note on the Cauchy distribution", Biometrika, 1974, vol. 61, no.2 p. 375–380
  12. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911, p. 378
  13. ^ Pickover, Clifford. The Math Book. Sterling Publishing, 2009, p. 180.
  14. ^ Atlas of Venus, by Peter John Cattermole, Patrick Moore, 1997, ISBN 0-521-49652-7, p. 112

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Kramer, Edna E. (1970). "Agnesi, Maria Gaetana". Dictionary of Scientific Biography 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 75–77. ISBN 0-684-10114-9. 
  • Mazzotti, Massimo (2001). "Maria Gaetana Agnesi: Mathematics and the making of the Catholic Enlightenment." Isis. v. 92, n. 4: pp. 657–683.
  • Mazzotti, Massimo (2007). The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

External links[edit]