Review of Pythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics and the Gender Wars by Margaret Wertheim
Pythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics and the Gender Wars
by Margaret Wertheim
I want to start this review by inviting you to read my review of A Short History of Nearly Everything, so you can understand my feelings about science going into this book.
If that’s tl;dr, then allow me to reiterate the main thrust of the review: science is fucking awesome. Got it?
Margaret Wertheim would agree with me, but in Pythagoras’ Trousers she explores how the general absence of women from mainstream scientific endeavours has affected the development of the sciences—specifically, physics—in the West. In particular, Wertheim argues that the dominance of men in physics resulted in the field becoming like a “priesthood”, and that this has created a feedback loop in which physics as an institution continues to exclude women despite advances in gender equity elsewhere in society.
This book pushes all the right buttons for me. I’m interested in gender issues, and as an educator, I’m specifically concerned about gender gaps in math (my speciality) and the sciences. On a broader level, I’m interested in the philosophy of science and examining critically the way we currently do science versus how we might do science better. In this sense, Pythagoras’ Trousers is the latest milestone in an ongoing personal journey of mine as my attitude towards science develops and changes over time. Like most children, my first ideas about science were very monolithic and certain. Thanks in part to my privileged position as a white male, this opinion hasn’t changed much until recently—and that’s exactly Wertheim’s point. Even with the best of intentions, it’s difficult to reflect critically on a discipline biased in favour of people like oneself.
We are fed this line that science is something objective, with physics being the most objective science of them all. The xkcd comic “Purity” reinforces this in a way that I, as a mathematician, appreciate:
From this perspective, science is supposed to be free of political or social agendas. This is supposed to be the great strength of science. And a lot of work goes into eliminating perceived bias from scientific work. Unfortunately, this perception of science is a lie. One need only look at all the times throughout history when “science!” has been the authority used to denigrate and oppress people based on the colour of their skin, the relative size of their skulls, etc. Science is a human endeavour, and therefore like any human endeavour, it is inherently political and biased.
As a basic concept, this notion is easy to understand and wasn’t difficult for me to accept. Yet I remained wary. When I read Feminism: Issues and Arguments, one chapter concerned philosopher of science Sandra Harding’s arguments regarding our need for a new subjectivity in science, a science as a social construct. I rejected that type of argument—I don’t know if it’s because of how it was framed (the book is back in Canada and I am not, at the moment) or if I simply wasn’t ready to acknowledge that this is really what science needs to be.
So in this sense, Wertheim’s detailled, historically-focused analysis of the exclusion of women from physics has provided a better argument to persuade me about subjectivity in science. It’s essentially given me the framework to let me say, “Ah, yeah, I’ve known this for a while—but now I understand why.”
Beginning with the eponymous Pythagoras (who, actually, wore robes and not trousers, it turns out), Wertheim establishes how, throughout history, the male powers-that-be in physics have established cults of personality and faith within their domains of knowledge. I particularly enjoyed how she deconstructs some of the myths behind well-known, oft-invoked examples of scientists who rebel against society—the Galileos and Brunos of history. Of the latter, she says:
The irony is that today Giordano Bruno is often portrayed by scientists as a martyr—a man who paid with his life for supporting heliocentric cosmology. However, as historian Francis Yates has shown, it was not his views about science that were the problem. The “genuine” physicists of his own time were as much opposed to his ideas as the clerics themselves.
This resonated with me because the martyr narrative is exactly how Bruno is portrayed in the Neil de Grasse Tyson remake of Cosmos. Bruno was a light shining in the darkness perpetuated by the Church, when actually he was a man with an interesting idea that didn’t have much in the way of evidence behind it at the time.
Don’t get me wrong, watching Cosmos has been a pleasure. I wasn’t born when Carl Sagan hosted the first version of the series, so I’m pleased that someone so eminent as de Grasse Tyson has resurrected the format to introduce a whole new generation to the wonders of science and the imagination. Cosmos joins Bill Nye the Science Guy and The Magic School Bus on my list of shows that help kids realize that they can ask questions about the world around them and, more importantly, they might even be able to answer them.
But if we want to be honest with ourselves, it behoves us to critically examine the narratives we tell about science. I love the interesting anecdotes about figures in the history of science—but at the same time, I don’t like how it perptuates the idea that science has been driven by “great men” (and women), geniuses who are somehow singular in their abilities. It’s a myth/hero narrative the seems counterproductive if our goal is to motivate the ordinary, average child to go into the sciences. Children figure out pretty early on whether they are geniuses or not.
Anyway, I still love the way in which Cosmos educates about science in a way that invokes the wonder of discovery. And, to be fair, de Grasse Tyson does a good job of avoiding language that might be construed as too religious. This is the other bone that Wertheim has to pick, and it’s one that has niggled at me for a while prior to reading the book. When scientists or the media invoke God—“the face of God”, “the mind of God”, the “language of God”, “the God particle”—I cringe. In particular, it bothers me quite a bit when people start seizing upon the counterintuitive discoveries in quantum mechanics and assign New Agey interpretations to them. It’s not good to conflate science and religion. I agree with Wertheim when she argues that the two are not diametric opposites, but they should also be separate.
So it’s a dirty little bit of laundry that Wertheim airs when she argues that, throughout history, many of our celebrated scientists actually had agendas of faith. This shouldn’t come as a surprise—humans are complex, conflicted creatures, and being an atheist is not a requirement for doing science. And even scientists who claim no religion can often substitute the pursuit of science itself as a kind of faith. This is a straw-man argument often invoked by opponents of science that, alas, has a grain of truth (where they go wrong is in a supposition that all of science is based on faith, when in fact the faith portion is involved in the conjecture and discovery part of the process). It’s also not something to be ashamed of—provided it doesn’t colour a scientist’s opinion of the field to the point of rejecting other ideas without reason.
Wertheim argues that the absence of women throughout the development of physics has led to a proliferation of this physics-as-priesthood, discovery-as-religion type of thinking. It’s an imbalance caused by too much of a certain type of thinking. We need a diversity of views, a diversity of ideas, to move forward. So towards the end of the book, she argues that if we can bring more women into the conversation, then perhaps we could refocus the emphasis in research in directions more beneficial for society. She questions the worth of spending billions of dollars searching for the Higgs particle and pursuing other “big questions” like the Theory of Everything—another substitute for God.
I’m ambivalent about this part of the book. On one hand, I agree that the search for the Theory of Everything feels anticlimactic. On the other hand, I think that our pursuit of these big questions is valuable because it’s part of the human quest for knowledge. Moreover, it’s difficult to predict what avenues of exploration led to the most useful results. Perhaps our experiments in particle accelerators will lead to a better understanding of mass and gravity in such a way that allows us to invent anti-gravitation devices. Who knows?
Whatever the case, though, I can see Wertheim’s point in that too many of the same type of people can bias the pursuit of any goal, science or otherwise. Her historical overview of science as a men-only club is informative and fascinating. The style is accessible, backed up by plenty of reference to other writers in the field. Overall, Pythagoras’ Trousers is another useful installment in my reading about science, philosophy, history, and gender. If you like these topics, then you really need to pick up a copy.