Wang Zhenyi was a Chinese astronomer, mathematician, and poet born in 1768 and despite the social philosophy of the time she was an avid reader and thinker. As a self-taught scientist she knew how important it was to make math and science available to the common people and she revised the work of other scientists to make it accessible. It was in this effort that she simplified a few dozen mathematical proofs and wrote two simple math primers for beginners. Her focus on mathematics was trigonometry and she independently discovered and wrote papers on the principles behind the Pythagorean Theorem.
To help people understand that is it gravity that makes it possible for the Earth to be round without them falling off she wrote a short paper on the topic. One of her most famous demonstrations explored lunar eclipses. By consulting decades of astronomical data she measured and arranged a round table in the center of a pavilion representing the Earth, a crystal lamp on a cord from the ceiling to represent the sun, and a mirror as the moon. As she moved the pieces around following the recorded motions of these objects she was able to show that lunar eclipses occur when the moon passes into the earth’s shadow. Her article “The Explanation of a Lunar Eclipse” shared her analysis of her observations.
Beyond her work in math and science she was also a gifted poet, mostly writing about subjects that were considered traditionally feminine like scenery or her travels, but a few of her poems were considered to be somewhat subversive in that they advocated for equality between women and men. She expressed the ideas that both had the same desire to learn so they should be afforded the same opportunities for learning.
Passing away at the age of 29 she gave her works to a friend that in turn passed them on to her nephew who compiled her work into Simple Principles of Calculation. In 2004, the International Astronomical Union named a crater on Venus in her honor.
Written by Angela Goad