Pythagoras’ Trousers: God Physics and the Gender Wars

Over the past three decades, the picture of science as an inevitable process to pure, objective truth has started to blur. Historians, sociologists, anthropologists and others have shown that scientific knowledge, like any other human product, is culturally shaped: entwined in social and psychological needs and inflected by various declared and not-so-declared agendas. Margaret Wertheim’s interest is physics, and her purpose in Pythagoras’ Trousers is twofold: to “trace the rise of physics in Western culture as a religiously inspired enterprise”, and to demonstrate how deep-lying and potent its masculinist outlook and presuppositions really are. The two aims come together in her metaphor of physics as “the Catholic Church of science”; as Catholicism is the last religion to admit (if ever it does) women into the priesthood to read out and interpret God’s book, so physics – despite its protestations to the contrary – manages to exclude all but a tiny handful of females from the brotherhood allowed to decipher the mathematical book of nature.

It is not hard to imagine physicists being antagonized by Wertheim’s book. Certainly, the current hostility of scientists towards anybody who dares to impugn science by suggesting that its claim to truth are tainted by social and historical (not least gender and religious) factors, makes it likely that those most in need of this book won’t read it. This is a great pity, for Wertheim has written a carefully researched, educative, intelligent and highly readable account of the rise of physics from its origins in Pythagorian number mysticism through the refolding of this mysticism into modern physics at its birth in the seventeenth century, and its continued presence since. Her account illuminates the recent invocation of God (His mind, His particle, His laws, His refusal to play dice, and so on) by Hawking, Lederman and other physicists, and traces it back to Einstein and ultimately Galileo, as well as explaining the consistently poor showing of physics compared to all the other sciences (including such supposedly masculine subjects as mathematics and computer science) in gender equality.

Much of what Wertheim has to say, as she is quick to acknowledge, is not new. The masculinist, exclusionary nature of the academy in general, which is traceable to its origins in monasticism and the ideals of Christian brotherhood, and the replication of these values within science, has been well described before; a generation of feminist scholars has demonstrated the antagonism between, on the one hand, reason and mechanical philosophy, and on the other, images of the “feminine”, as well as uncovering the layers of prejudice, doublethink, philosophical amour proper, economic servitude and plain misogyny that, until recently, have made the practice of science by women almost impossible. Wertheim’s strength is not her new scholarship or original research, but her vivid, sharply focused narrative. Her tracking of the “Ascent of Mathematical Man” is scientifically accessible, critical and engaging. This is perhaps due to the author’s personal engagement with the issues and her desire to retain the sense of mathematical wonder that drew her to physics in the first place (though she also articulates what it is about the subject that made continuing in it impossible for her). The result is not simply autobiographical or confessional – true to the canons of scientific impersonality there is, after the introduction, no “I” in her text – but there is a certain combative, politically honed edge in the writing.

After chasing Mathematical Man and his theological desires, from Pythagoras and his Neo-platonic and early Renaissance incarnations, through Kepler’s and Newton’s forms of Christian belief, to contemporary attempts at a final synthesis (the Theory of Everything whose totalizing arrogance attracts her sharpest condemnation), Wertheim suggests that perhaps the time is ripe for the Ascent of Mathematical Woman, that perhaps physics might benefit, as other areas of cultural life have done, from the presence of more women in the field. Time, in other words, for Pythagoras’ strutting trousers to be exchanged for more secular, less belligerent skirts. I would like to believe in that possibility, but in the present climate it seems like a pious hope; moreover, who is to say that women preachers (any more than women politicians) are going to be all that different from their male counterparts?

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