Review: Pythagoras’s Trousers by Margaret Wertheim

Surprise!  I’m alive and so is this blog.  Life happens, but hopefully I’ll be back for a while.

Published in 1995; 252 pages; ★★☆☆☆

“Who knows what talent was squandered because women were not given equal access to education and careers?  Who knows what insights and inventions were lost because more women did not participate in the great technological revolution of the nineteenth century?”

Here is a fresh, astute social and cultural history of physics, from ancient Greece to our own time. From its inception, Margaret Wertheim shows, physics has been an overwhelmingly male-dominated activity; she argues that gender inequity in physics is a result of the religious origins of the enterprise.

Pythagoras’ Trousers is a highly original history of one of science’s most powerful disciplines. It is also a passionate argument for the need to involve both women and men in the process of shaping the technologies from the next generation of physicists.

(From Goodreads)

Physics is not my scientific field of choice.  I’ve struggled with it since middle school, for a variety of reasons.  Still, it’s an important field and one which drives much of our modern society – and also one in which women have comparatively little participation.  Pythagoras’s Trousers was loaned to me by my grandmother, who read it for her book group, and thought I might find it interesting, and I did… though not precisely as the text it purports to be.  Wertheim has produced a sound history of physics, and of sexism and religiosity within the science, but I left the book feeling like she hadn’t really presented a case for a causal relationship between those qualities.

Primarily, what I found to be lacking in her central thesis was a control group.  Historical academic sexism excluded women from all areas of study, not just physics, and religious influence was similarly prevalent.  Biology’s binomial classification system was invented by Carl Linnaeus, for example, who intended his original Systema Naturae as a study of ‘God’s natural order’.  It’s hard to point towards physics as a singularly ‘priestly’ science without counterexamples – perhaps other fields separated themselves from the Church sooner, but if so Wertheim doesn’t mention it.  

There’s another factor here, though:  while participation of women in physics nowadays certainly doesn’t match up with participation of women in other sciences, the prohibition against women in academia made no distinctions by field for centuries.  In point of fact, I’m not sure it’s possible to identify why physics is different until the historical point at which women were admitted to academia in general.  While context regarding the development of the field is certainly interesting, more recent history would have been more persuasive – and it is this portion of history that Wertheim spent the least time on.  This lack became clear when she offhandedly mentions that mathematics has a higher percentage of women earning degrees than physics, despite the fact that mathematics has, historically, been closely linked to physics and originates from a similar abstract realm.  What is fundamentally different between these two adjacent fields?

(It also bears mentioning that Wertheim’s perspective is solely and explicitly Western, and I found myself wondering if mathematics and physics had at any point developed differently around the world.  This, too, could have served as a contrast to illustrate her thesis.)

In light of these gaps in her central argument, I found her summaries of lives and accomplishments of ‘Mathematical Men’ to be somewhat distracting.  They were educational, yes, and generally well-related, but they often didn’t feel relevant.  Wertheim clearly loves physics and finds it fascinating, which is certainly no flaw, but at times seemed to take over her writing.  She reminded me a little of one of my professors, a man who studied birds and was completely focused on them to the point where a dead bird could derail an entire class.

Looking back on the introduction and conclusion, though, I find myself thinking that perhaps Wertheim has a different thesis layered underneath her stated physics-religion-sexism theory.  She spends both the first and last chapters talking about where physics study is focused, on the Theory of Everything, and the increasing divergence between physics funding and practical applications.  While the connection she draws between monotheism and the TOE is compelling, it verges into the polemic from time to time, as Wertheim discusses the expenses of the proposed Superconducting Supercollider.  It started to feel particularly heavy-handed when I noticed a phrase repeated wholesale between the two chapters.  

On page 15:

“In expecting society to provide billions of dollars to support this quest, TOE physicists have become like a decadent priesthood, demanding that the populace build them ever more elaborate cathedrals, with spires reaching ever higher into their idea of heaven.”

And on page 238:

“In their demands that society should keep paying, TOE physicists have become like a decadent priesthood, expecting the populace to build them ever more lavish and costly cathedrals, with spires reaching ever higher.”

I don’t mean to argue that scientific writing should be sanitized of the author’s opinions, especially on topics which are hotly debated within the field.  However, again, I feel this is a point in which Wertheim’s digression from her central topic undermines the book as a whole.  Also, as someone who wavers on the issue of ‘pure science’ research versus practical applications, I found her argument to be rather one-sided, and that she used the specter of ‘lavish cathedrals’ to characterize physicists unfairly.  After all, one of the central facts of all sciences is that critical discoveries often happen by accident – we may not know of a practical application for a confirmed Theory of Everything yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s not out there to be found.

As a woman, an atheist, and a scientist, I do think we need to have honest conversations about the impacts and intersections of sexism and religion in any and all scientific fields.  The truth is that for all the modern rhetoric about conflict between science and faith, a lot of people do treat science as an article of faith, and then fail to acknowledge that fact.  Science, well-practiced, should be about being open to new information and ideas and evaluating them impartially; when it becomes ideologically entrenched, it fails. And science is fallible, as our modern society should have well learned – it has been used to justify or perpetrate all manner of atrocities, from racism and colonialism to weapons of war. Taking science on faith (and then insisting that it is only rational never to question) is a path well worn and to be avoided as best we can.

Along those lines, I also submit that the question of sexism should be framed carefully.  It’s true that women are more likely to be ‘grounded’, as Wertheim puts it, because we are socialized to focus heavily on the material world*, but I don’t think you can simultaneously argue that this socialization keeps women out of physics AND that it is a reason their influence is needed in physics.  The solution has to be broader:  the disparity in socialization by gender needs to be closed, and an increased diversity in participation will bring all sorts of new ideas and perspectives to the table.

Fundamentally, if you argue “we need women in x field because women have this ~inherently female quality~ that is lacking”, you’re… not being particularly progressive.  The only area where I can see that being relevant is storytelling (fiction or nonfiction, movies or journalism), where the experience of gender changes how the teller relates the tale.  But while life experience certainly shapes people’s approach to science, gender is only one facet thereof.  Someone who grew up in poverty, for instance, might also have the ‘grounded’ and materially-focused attitude Wertheim argues physics needs, regardless of their gender.  Different cultural and religious backgrounds (individualism vs. communalism, for instance) mold perspectives and priorities; so, potentially, does language.

The problem with a lack of women in a given career, be it physics or politics or anything in between, isn’t that there’s a specific ‘feminine touch’ that’s absent.  It’s that nearly half the potential participants in a conversation are sitting it out.  Half the brains that could be analyzing data, finding connections, following patterns to new discovery are on the outside of the circle.  Sexism is a variety of insularity, and that robs us of an unknowable number of ideas.

(*I’m reminded of a line from ‘Tradition’ in Fiddler on the Roof – “Who must raise a family and run the home, while Papa’s free to read the holy book?”)



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