PYTHAGORAS' TROUSERS by Margaret Wertheim

PYTHAGORAS' TROUSERS

God, Physics, and the Gender Wars

KIRKUS REVIEW

 Are physicists a priesthood excluding women on age-old grounds that women can't be ``ordained''? So argues Wertheim, Australian- educated physicist/mathematician cum science writer. Taking the long view, she traces the role of women in mathematics and physics through the ages, starting with the Pythagoreans. Apparently there were women Pythagoreans; however, by the time of Aristotle women were declared inferior. Wertheim is to be complimented for bringing to light the stories of the females who tackled physics, astronomy, and mathematics (and the men who encouraged them): Hypatia of Alexandria; the 14th-century Christine of Pisan; Tycho Brahe's sister Sofie. But societal forces all but forbade female participation in natural science: the closure of universities to women; the imposition of celibacy on priests and university dons; not to mention the prevailing dichotomy that posited men as abstract thinkers and women as bound with the material world. Slowly but surely this has changed, nearly everywhere but in physics, according to Wertheim. Physicists are the new priests, she declares, as witness their popular writings: Stephen Hawking alludes to the Mind of God, and others espouse Theories of Everything. But here Wertheim is assuming a unity that does not exist. Many physicists find TOEs an illusory game, if not a bore. So the reason why fewer women than men get Ph.D.s in physics today is more a question of secular trends and where the jobs are: Female Ph.D.s in physics and math are increasing, but at a slower rate than female M.D.s; the numbers of women getting degrees in engineering and computer sciences are also lowfields where theology hardly pertains. But while her basic premise on physics as theology overstates the case, Wertheim's text has other merits: She brings to light fascinating details of the lives and times of many exceptional women and men who have helped shape our current worldview.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-8129-2200-X
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Times/Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1995




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