May 16, 2010

Happy Birthday, Maria Gaetana Agnesi
Born on this day in 1718, in Milan, Italy, Agnesi is the first woman in the Western world considered to be an important mathematician since Greece's Hypatia (5th Century). Agnesi was also a philosopher and a linguist.

Agnesi was a child prodigy, and by 13 she was a “Walking Polyglot” because she knew French, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, German, Latin, and of course her native Italian. At age 9, she
wrote a one-hour speech (in Latin) on the right of women to be educated, and she delivered it to an academic group. From age 15 to 20, her father organized meetings at their house: the most learned men in Bologna would come, and the teenage Agnesi would read and argue philosophical questions. However, she didn't really want to participate in these events, and at 20 she put a stop to them.

Agnesi was considered dazzingly beautiful. She wanted to enter a convent and just stu
dy, but her father asked her to continue to teach her younger siblings. (Maria's mother had died, and her father married two more times.) All told, Maria was the oldest of her father's 21 children, so teaching all of them took a lot of her time.

Agnesi's biggest contribution to mathematics was a two-volume book on differential and integral calculus that brought together in a systematic way the work of several different mathematicians, with her own analysis and interpretations. When it was published in 1748, Analytical Institutions made an academic sensation.
Agnesi also became a university professor (Wikipedia claims she is the first woman university professor) and eventually joined a convent and helped the poor, homeless, and sick.
Agnesi wrote about calculus.
You may be thinking, “What is calculus, anyway?”

Watch this very short video to find out!

Play Around with Math!

  • This English version of a Dutch website has tons of really interesting math puzzles and games. I loved looking at the Impossible Object (rotate it around to see the illusion), and I played Colouring Sides 1 (fun!) and Falling Sums (also good).

  • Math Galaxy has a “demo mode” that it offers for free. I tried a pretty challenging game called Bridge the Swamp.

  • Click Math Arcade on the FunBrain website for some math “video games.”


  1. What a smart girl and women she grew up to be. Thank you for posting this we enjoyed reading about this wonderful women.

    1. I am always excited to "meet" someone I'd never heard of before as I write the next day's post! Thanks for your appreciation!