Book Review: Pythagoras' Trousers by Margaret Wertheim

 Pythagoras' Trousers:
God, Physics, and the Gender Wars

by Margaret Wertheim
W.W. Norton & Company, 1997, New York, NY
297 pages, $13.95 paperback

Buy this book from Powell's, an independent bookstore

Most of us are familiar with the mythical image of Galileo, whose scientific work was brutally brought to a halt by the Catholic church for daring to assert that the Earth revolved around the sun. In the context of that familiar image, we've often viewed science and religion as diametrically opposed, with science representing cold, logical reason, and religion remaining the province of faith and spiritual knowing.

In her book Pythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars, Margaret Wertheim argues that this division between science and religion is more myth than reality. In this highly original look at the history of scientific thought, she asserts that physics in particular among the sciences has been a religiously inspired activity. Mathematical order and the laws of physics have long been viewed as the keys to unlocking the secrets of the universe, with each new discovery allowing scientists to get closer to what they see as looking into the face of God, the ultimate scientist/creator.

Wertheim points to the example of Pythagoras and his followers, who lived almost monastic lives, studying and contemplating numbers and their divine qualities. And Sir Isaac Newton, known for his discovery of the Laws of Motion, was said to be very pleased when asked if these laws could be used to validate the presence of God. Even Galileo's most fervent hope was to have the Pope accept his views of a heliocentric universe.

Although most physicists today maintain no formal ties with religion, the view of the study of the universe as a “divine pursuit” colors the work of Stephen Hawking and many others. Hawking's successful book, A Brief History of Time, opens with a reference to “the mind of God,” and there have been several physics books recently published with “God” in their titles, such as The Mind of God and God and the New Physics.

This entanglement of science with religion, Wertheim proposes, is responsible for the exclusion of women in the scientific world. “Women have had to fight on the one hand for the right to interpret the ‘book' of nature, and, on the other hand, for the right to interpret the books of Scripture,” she says. Women are now becoming ministers in many denominations of Christianity, which parallels the headway they are making in several branches of science. However, like the Catholic Church, physics remains a closed, all-male circle, with only a handful of women who have broken through its barriers.

In 1992, women earned 11 percent of PhDs in physics and astronomy; they earned 23 percent of PhDs in environmental science, 26 percent in chemistry, 39 percent in biological and life sciences, and 47 percent in social sciences.

Wertheim writes that the reason for this discrepancy is that the “male-only, scientific ‘priesthood'” of physics is still very much bound up in religious tradition – and the cultural hegemony that accompanies it. Women have long been viewed as being unsuited for science. In my own high school and college years, I remember being told that men are innately better at analytic, mathematical, and, therefore, scientific thinking, while women supposedly excel in perceptual, linguistic areas. This view has its roots in the Homeric era, when a male-female, heaven-earth dichotomy became strongly rooted in Western culture.

“Women,” says Wertheim, “were cast on the side of the material, the bodily, the ‘earthly,' while men were cast on the side of the spiritual, the intellectual, and the ‘heavenly.' For most of the Greeks, ... it was men alone who could aspire to psychic transcendance, whereas women ... were said to be forever trapped in the material prisons of their bodies.”

She goes on to tie this dichotomy to the present underrepresentation of women in physics: “From an early age, girls are encouraged to be concerned about their bodies, their appearance, and domestic order; in other words, to be deeply concerned with the material. ... The quest for cosmic harmonies is a quest for something utterly disembodied, something utterly immaterial. Modern Western society does not have a model of female intellectual transcendance. ... Given this long history, it is not surprising that when women did break into science, they would be concentrated in the ‘earthly' life sciences, and that the ‘heavenly' mathematically based science would remain the last area of male hegemony.”

This is not to say that women have not had a proud tradition of important discoveries in the study of physics. Although the average person cannot name an eminent female physicist other than Marie Curie, Wertheim shares the stories of several who had (and are having) a great impact on the physical sciences.

The list is distinguished, but it is not long. Besides the ecumenically imposed glass ceiling in scientific academia, another reason Wertheim believes that many women do not go into physics is that they find its focus “deeply alienating.” The current preoccupation of physicists with discovering the Theory of Everything (TOE) – that one supreme law that melds force and matter – and their implications that such a theory will take us to God are the ultimate manifestation of the decadent high priesthood of physics, Wertheim believes. “Physics does not warrant the religiously privileged status it has come to have in our culture,” she says, calling the billions of research dollars that TOE scientists have spent on particle accelerators and superconducting supercolliders “irresponsible” in the face of the many problems plaguing today's world. She emphasizes the need to turn valuable research time and money toward contributing positively to society at large.

Wertheim feels that given their status as outsiders, the introduction of more women into the mathematically-based sciences could play a large part in changing the climate of physics, just as they are changing the culture and content of the biological sciences. She mentions physicist Karen Barad, who believes that “because women are outsiders in physics, they tend to reflect more on their role in the community.” Barad also finds that women in physics ask different types of questions, a phenomenon she sees in non-white men as well.

Those questions are different, Wertheim says, because as outsiders, women aren't wedded to ideas that can color and obstruct their research. She quotes prominent astrophysicist Jeremiah Ostriker, who commented that the reason women may be making major discoveries – such as Vera Rubin's discovery of evidence of cosmic dark matter – is that without access to the “inner circle” of the physics community, they simply don't know that certain things are supposed to be impossible.

With these benefits in mind, Wertheim calls us to take on the question of how to encourage more women to enter the field. “The point is that when significant numbers of women participate in a science, they alter the intellectual climate so that some practitioners of both sexes are enabled to see in new ways,” she says.

What is delightful about Wertheim's book is not just the careful research or even the potential benefits she presents if women do take the physical sciences by storm, but the passion she has for her subject matter and the lyricism of her prose. Whether she's describing the “elegant” Noether's Theorem or detailing the “beauty” of Newton's laws, her enthusiasm is infectious. Pythagoras' Trousers grabs you by the hand and leads you to the depths of a universe where, together with the author, you can almost hear the music of the spheres.