## Agnesi, Maria Gaetana (1718–1799)
Witch of Agnesi. Born in Milan,
Maria was one of 21 children of a three-times-married professor of mathematics at the University
of Bologna. A child prodigy, she could speak seven languages, including
Latin, Greek, and Hebrew by the age of 11, and was solving difficult problems
in geometry and ballistics by her early teens. Her father encouraged her
studies and her appearance at public debates. However, Maria developed a
chronic illness, marked by convulsions and headaches, and, from the age
of about 20, withdrew socially and devoted herself to mathematics. Her Instituzioni
analitiche ad uso della gioventu italiana, published in 1748, became
a standard teaching manual and, in 1850, she was appointed to the chair
of mathematics and natural philosophy at Bologna. Yet she never fulfilled
her early promise in terms of making new breakthroughs. After the death
of her father in 1752, she moved into theology, and, after serving for some
years as the directress of the Hospice Trivulzio for Blue Nuns at Milan,
joined the sisterhood herself and ended her days in this austere order. The famous curve that bears her name had been studied earlier, in 1703, by Pierre de Fermat and the Italian mathematician Guido Grandi (1671-1742). Maria wrote about it in her teaching manual and referred to it as the aversiera, which simply means to turn. But
in translating this, the British mathematician John Colson (1680-1760),
the fifth Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, confused aversiera with avversiere which means witch, or wife of the
devil. And so the name of the curve came down to us as the Witch of Agnesi.
To draw it, start with a circle of diameter a, centered at the point (0, a/2) on the y-axis.
Choose a point A on the line y = a and connect it to
the origin with a line segment. Call the point where the segment crosses
the circle B. Let P be the point where the vertical line through A crosses the horizontal line through B. The Witch is the
curve traced by P as A moves along the line y = a.
By a happy coincidence, it does a look a bit like a witch's hat! In Cartesian
coordinates, its equation is
## Related categories• MATHEMATICIANS• PLANE CURVES | ||||||||

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