The living witch of Agnesi.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women’s contributions to the fields of science and technology.  I am no scientist, but this post is in honor of all of the women who have pioneered new paths in traditionally male fields and done it with grace, creativity, and courage… including my mother, who became a doctor during a time when girls didn’t get get cards to that old boys’ club.

Math and science have been used for centuries to cast doubt on the possibilities of the divine, but in my experience the beautiful symmetries, paradoxes, and poetic mysteries of mathematics, especially as it blends with art and music, have pointed me ever more certainly in the direction of God.  The universe is fascinating not only in its striking visual beauty, but because of its inner-workings.  Invisible rules abound, waiting to be revealed in the (I confess) completely unintelligible language of math.  I don’t get it, and I suppose it’s not necessary that I do, but I always appreciate people who can help me to understand how this world fits together within itself, how I fit into it on a cellular and molecular level.  An atomic one.

When I was thinking about women in the sciences this week, I ran across a phenomenon, and a woman, I’d never encountered before.  The Living Witch of Agnesi is a mathematical bell-shaped curve, the equation discovered by a woman named Maria Gaetana Agnesi who lived in Milan during the 18th century.  The curve is cool, perfect, and beautiful – its formula describes asymptotic behavior, meaning that it gets ever closer to zero but never quite reaches it, until X = infinity.  I like that, the idea of something never quite reaching zero but always reaching for it.  It reminds me of God’s time, of kairos. I’ve been thinking about how Christians are supposed, in some way, to have asymptotic faith, a faith reaching for its ultimate purpose but living in the tense reality that this is not necessarily achievable in our own time.


Maria was the eldest of 21 children in a wealthy, noble Milanese family, her father a professor of mathematics at the University of Bologna who recognized talent in his daughter.  Treated as a child prodigy, she was given tutors to learn Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, Spanish, philosophy and science and presented speeches to her father’s assembled colleagues at his urging.  At age 20, Maria assembled these nearly 200 speeches and published them in Latin, the topics including philosophy, celestial mechanics, gravitational theory and elasticity.  As the oldest of her siblings, it fell to her to teach them, and so that year she also began to write a maths text for her brothers, a task that took ten years to complete and was ultimately 1000 pages covering arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry, analytic geometry and calculus, as well as infinite series and differential equations.  The brilliance of the work was Maria’s use of many contemporary thinkers and the integration of the ideas in a novel way that continues to impress scholars in our own time.  The pope appointed Maria to the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy at the University of Bologna in recognition of the work.

Maria is not the “living witch of Agnesi…”  She used the Latin word ‘versoria‘ for the curve she studied, meaning ‘a rope that turns a sail’. This ‘versoria‘ became the the Italian wordla versiera’, which means ‘free to move’. But the translator of her book, the Englishman John Colson, translated the word to ‘l’aversiera’, the Italian word for ‘witch’.  While the translation error is interesting, considering the fact that innovative, creative, and free-thinking women throughout history have been mistaken for witches, I’m more fascinated by the totality of Maria’s life and accomplishments than I am by an Italian-incompetent male professor of math.  That story seems stale.

When Maria’s father died, she was released from the responsibility of educating her brothers and sisters, freeing her to use her resources to help the poor in her city.  In 1759, she opened a home for poor, ill, and elderly and continued this work, living there amongst those she served, until her death in 1799, when she was buried in a pauper’s grave, having given away all she owned – aside from her talents for teaching, language, science, philosophy, courage, and generosity, Maria also spent her time composing lovely music.  This woman, a brilliant and cutting-edge thinker, managed to do something that few human beings accomplish.  She integrated her world, connecting not only the smallest, most invisible laws of science to one another for the benefit of academics and art but linking the intangible demands of her faith and reason for the well-being of her fellow human beings.  She not only circumscribed mathematical arcs but relational ones, and in the process created beauty and richness.  I pray that we all, women and men, can live in such a way.


1 Comment »

  1. Lisa Withrow Said:

    There are many good witches. This one sounds mighty fabulous.

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