APS News

My Opinion-Others May Differ

Who Wears Pythagoras' Trousers?

By David Markowitz

Male versus female, as an undercurrent in the practice of physics, has enlivened APS News. A book by science writer Margaret Wertheim transforms the current into a shock of discovery.

The book is Pythagoras' Trousers, or God, Physics, and the Gender Wars. The title reminds us that Pythagoras and his followers combined natural and supernatural studies. They originated the idea God is a mathematician, an idea that still has currency.

The author covers much of the history of Western science, religion, and society, and she does so with a deft hand. Her main points are that women have been deliberately excluded from the highest callings of the mind, encompassing both science and religion, and that the persistence of this situation bodes ill for science, for society, and for women.

In the introductory chapter Wertheim zooms in on the most egregious religion and the most offending science by saying: "Physics is thus the Catholic Church of science." Of Mathematical Man, one of her multi-purpose constructs: "He does not need a sex change, just a major personality realignment."

Through recorded history women have received less opportunity and recognition than men. In the Old Testament, the generations - whose reckonings supposedly gave the age of God's Earth - were virtually all male. There must have been an equal number of females, but they were cast in supporting and largely unreported roles. In the New Testament, men are spiritual beings and political figures, while women are either virgins or whores. Yes, it sounds unfair and unrealistic to me, too.

The book brings several questions to mind. Has the bulk of Western civilization been built upon these Biblical beginnings? Have science and religion been in cahoots, rather than at odds through the ages? Has the priesthood acted to exclude women, as well as other groups? How will we now include the disaffected outsiders? Will the inclusions materially change the way physics, in particular, is done?

It is apparent that religious and scientific societies have had explicit rules forbidding women to join. When rules were relaxed, votes still were not. Think of Marie Curie and the French Academy. Think of all the bright and achieving women who were refused admission to graduate schools in the US until fairly recent decades. In a persistence of discrimination, these same women were denied faculty positions over the same time period. A woman could no more become a professor than she could become a priest. The most mathematical of the sciences rejected women most completely. Physics uses math the way the Church used Latin, or so it is said. Without Latin, you could not lead a Mass. Without math, you cannot advance in physics. To stop women from entering either, simply prevent them from learning the holy language.

Wertheim contradicts my misconception that science and religion have been at each other's throats. I always think of the Scopes "monkey trial" in Tennessee - a trial that science teaching faces again and again in nearly every state. To Wertheim this is but a mole on the face of the science-religion complex.

Almost all of the notable scientists were deeply religious men. They agonized over their scientific findings if they appeared to veer from religious precepts. Think of Kepler resisting for years non-circular shapes for planetary orbits. Think of Einstein resisting for decades the dice-playing deity of quantum mechanics. Newton apparently spent more time on alchemy - considered a spiritual pursuit - than on what we recognize as physics. Hawking has adopted Einstein's preoccupation with the "mind of God," and is acting as if he is getting closer to reading the inside of it. The name of God is making multiple appearances in the lingo of contemporary physics, as in "the God particle," Leon Lederman's version of the Higgs boson - the one whose detection will clinch the claim of reading God's mind.

Are we in the physics community still as obsessed with God as the investigators of old? I think references to God in this enlightened age is largely a ploy. To a particle physicist, God is a bargaining chip, much like family values is to a politician. Sure, lots of folks believe in God and family values and few wish to argue against them. But their main purpose is what they earn for their promoters: money to do research on the one hand, and votes to propel them into office on the other.

A good deal of Wertheim's argument is that male physics and female physics are different, and, being different, it would be beneficial to have both. It is a yin/yang kind of thing. But is it so? Coming from the same world view as "Men are from mars, women are from Venus," is the assertion that men seek competition and women seek cooperation. Thus, men are the dynamic, gritty diggers into more basic levels of understanding, while women are the synthesizers of holistic patterns in nature. This is a nice division of behaviors, if true. It is also said that men have a component of arrogance, and the association of the male physics of the basic forces and fields with God's handiwork is a current manifestation of that arrogance.

Wertheim comes close to asking, "Why can't a man be more like a woman?" If men are seen as manipulators and women as nurturers, it might be refreshing to see men change more than women do. Could your superstring theorist be female, and your physicist of butterfly flight be male? Emphatically yes. The hardhitting woman and the soft-spoken man are around in small, growing numbers. What is more important to Wertheim is the need to shift toward the butterfly and away from the superstring. Why is that?

The big question in the final chapter, "The Ascent of Mathematical Woman," is the social responsibility of science. This pits the multi-billion-dollar accelerator establishment against just about everyone else. Are the largest physics machines the cathedrals of our age? They are certainly awesome marvels of architecture, at least figuratively reaching for the sky. But cathedrals make some claims about touching God; hence, the claim on behalf of the machines seeking the "God particle." Whatever one feels about the grandeur of cathedrals in the face of poverty or ignorance of the general populace in history, one still must ask whether the present world can afford to spend billions on particle physics.

Let me quote from Peter Matthiessen's Tigers in the Snow, in which the author's quest is to save the tiger as a species on Earth. Why save the tiger? Says Matthiessen: "In arguing for heroic efforts on behalf of tigers, one could cite the critical importance of biodiversity, as well as the interdependence of all life, but finally these abstractions seem less vital than... the aura of a creature as splendid as any on Earth, infusing man's life with myth and power and beauty." In fact, biologists are still attempting to study the tiger in the wild. Thus, the world may lose another species before it knows what it is losing.

This argument to me is not only persuasive on behalf of the tiger, it is the only one I would consider on behalf of a supercollider. Does the big machine infuse our life with myth and power and beauty? Like the tiger in the jungle (and the great cathedrals), will the giant accelerator make us better than we are? As physicists and as citizens, we are called to answer those questions.

David Markowitz is an emeritus professor of physics at the University of Connecticut, and editor of the APS New England Section newsletter.

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