Read Pythagoras's Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender War by Margaret Wertheim Online


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....

Title : Pythagoras's Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender War
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ISBN : 9780393317244
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 320 Pages
Status : Available For Download
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Pythagoras's Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender War Reviews

  • Ben Babcock
    2019-04-21 20:02

    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.

  • Kogiopsis
    2019-05-01 19:07

    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.(Full review on Kogi Reviews.)

  • Trevor
    2019-05-19 01:52

    This book is hot. Read it.She says some really, really interesting things here about how physicists see themselves are reading the mind of god and are sort of the priesthood of science. She also gives high energy physicists a kicking over wanting to spend billions of dollars getting a unified field theory. Okay, I think she is wrong and billions of dollars is actually cheap for finding out these things - but I do think she has a point worth considering (and rejecting, obviously) in that there are one or two people in the world starving and perhaps those billions would be better spent on that.Yeah, yeah, yeah - but it won't, will it? And I think three in five scientist on the planet make weapons and billions are spent on making weapons that are then sold to poor countries to help them not feed their people. So, spending money on pure research seems positively benign in comparison.But Margaret is smart and sexy and a damn good read.

  • Rahma Leil
    2019-05-03 01:08

    Physics Vs Religion and Women in Physics : A book review for "Pythagoras' Trousers" by Margaret Wertheim   Most of us perceive the relation between physics and religion as they are enemies due to the miserable end of Hypatia's life , the halt of Galileo's career by the church and the many other stories that showed the persecution of scientists by religious people , this led to the common ground that the  scientific community should be secular and objective, however Margaret Wertheim argues in her book that the opposition between physics and religion is a myth rather than reality. Her idea is that physics is an activity inspired by the pursuit of divine, giving example of Pythagoras having views that mathematics reveals the wonders of God, the religious Kepler and Newton who wanted to use physics to prove  the existence of god, Albert Einestein's famous quote " God does not play dice",  Leon Lederman calling Higgs boson " The God Particle" and Hawkinig mentioning the word God numerous times in his book " A brief history of time" even if he does not affiliate to any religion.   During the time of Kepler and Newton, the two arguments used in the context of religion and physics were the design as scientists found it hard to believe that the universe stands by itself and there must be a superior power that holds everything together.The other argument ,ironically, was the " God of the gaps" , when scientists failed at finding interpretations to something, they just used " God" to fill this gap. I know of some people  who still use these two arguments to convince themselves of the mutual benefit relation between physics and religion and to fill the gap regarding the start of universe. Though, these two arguments did not appeal to Galileo leading to his miserable career halt  and Descartes with his famous ideas of dualism. The more we go on with science and find scientific interpretations for the gaps , the two arguments become weaker and weaker .   Personally, I do not agree with her hypothesis that religion and physics are in harmony. I do agree that physics was inspired by the pursuit of divine at the beginning , however, I do not think that physics can be used to prove the existence of God or the truth of any religious texts. The first reason why physics can not be used for proving the existence of God is that both physics and theology have different methods in developing their ideas, physics is based on doubting and thinking about what the previous scientists did while theology is based on blindly believing in the teachings of God or Allah or Budha or Ganesha or Jesus Christ, ...etc. The second reason for not using physics to prove the truth of any religion is that religions have different interpretation for the physical world from what is already scientifically proven. For instance, some Saudi scientists approved a PhD thesis that claims that the earth is flat not spherical based on their interpretation of some texts in Quran that apparently says that the earth is flat. Actually, I do not even think that there is one specific  interpretation of any holy book; the texts are vague and we can not even know for sure which interpretation is right. Moreover, religious texts of the Abrahamic religions claim that the universe was created in six days while the scientific community believes that it took 13 billion years ! In Biology, there is the dilemma of the direct creation versus evolution. The more we go on with science , we find more and more contradicting facts between science and religions. It is useless to claim that science can support religion or religion can support science. It is always better to keep them separate and to keep the scientific community secular and objective regardless of the religious beliefs of scientists.  Margaret Wertheim also linked between physics and gender wars. She showed how women were persecuted and prevented from formally getting into the  physics community from Pythagoras time till the early 20th century. She even showed that women had to get into physics informally through their fathers or their husbands and in some cases , their names did not show up in publications not to be perceived as " less weight" by the scientific community. I have read many moving stories that were really inspiring about women physicists whom we can consider role models.   Wertheim thinks that some women abandoned physics because they find the physics community using the mathematical approach rather than the conceptual approach and she even claimed that women find physics so abstract . However, I think that she contradicted herself in the book as she gave many examples of great women physicists who excelled in mathematics like Laura Bassi ,Marie Curie , Emmy Noether ,...etc. Plus, she provided data that showed that the number of women in mathematics are more than the number of women in physics. Moreover, she gave data showing that women are not innately less talented at mathematics than men.  Throughout the book, I found it hard to exactly detect where the idea of marginalizing women specifically in physics came from. Wertheim claims that this came from men looking at women as less physically developed than them so they must be less mentally developed , however, I found this reason to be a week argument because the famous idea of dualism by Descartes did not solve this issue at that time. Instead , I personally think that religions, whatever they are, have more to do about this than anything else. As  early  as the start of religious ideas from the painted rituals of the early humans to Islam, women were given less rights than men, women were assigned a gender role to stay at home giving birth and feeding kids and many superstitions come up about women like the virginity fraud , honor killings ,...etc. As this started so early and this was in favor of men at that time, these ideas are reinforced in the societies till now especially in the Arab world. Intelligent women had to hide their brightness in order not to be perceived '' masculin'' . Such  religious ideas were a pillar to all the old societies so they still have an impact till now in the well being of women. Many fathers prevent their daughters from pursuing their careers because religions state it clear that women should be at home. Many fathers think that their daughters will be the reason why they will burn in hell because their daughters decided that they will not pursue such religious rituals. The deep religious interference in people's life at the old time led people in the later times to have traces of these ideas. For instance, Newton died a virgin and he avoiding women , later on we found out that the far less religious Einstein was a misogynist. He separated from his first wife Mileva Maric who he used to consider his best companion while working out physics problems , her name did not appear on any publications , though, for his second wife , Elsa Einestein , who used to stay at home doing the house works and caring of him ! Most men do not get a long with a woman who might challenge their egos. They prefer a woman who keeps silent praising them .  As this books was published in 1997 , the year when I was born , I believe that the women status in physics totally changed right now. Women have more opportunities and universities no longer have discriminating laws that prevent women from working and getting the same positions as their male colleagues. I know examples of bright girls at the physics department at Rutgers who have bright future ahead of them. However, the traces of the old ideas about women are still there in some cultures preventing women from getting into physics thinking that they are not that smart ,so the new challenge for women is the traces of the old culture to get into physics not how there career will be like in the university campuses. Once bright women get into physics, they will find no discrimination against them ,at least, in the academic track.I also want to add to this book that we also need to think about stopping discrimination against LGBTQ community. Personally, I believe that defending the rights of LGBTQ is a part of feminism because both women and such other minorities; LGBTQ , people of color,...etc has gone through discrimination in the past so they share the same painful experiences so opening the doors to all of those people and breaking the traces of the old discriminating cultures will end up in more people providing more ideas in both the scientific community and in the society in general.   This book is a type of books that I would have a Rogerian debate about them. There are ideas that I agree with and others that I disagree with. However, I have found it to be interesting especially when it came to knowing the stories of the previous women physicists and I also think that it is a mind stimulating book mentioning the history of physics , its relation with religion and gender wars. I would recommend it to anyone interested in physics and feminism. The author used understandable language making the book appeal to the public as a " Pop Science" book. Plus, I find it great that she kept balance between her ideas in physics, religion, and gender wars using data to support her ideas.

  • Margaret Wertheim
    2019-05-20 00:41

    I wrote this book as a way to introduce physics as a culturally embedded activity, one that doesn't spring out of the blue but rather is deeply embedded in a matrix of philosophy and theology going back 2000 years. I didn't set out to write about the history of physics and religion, but that story gradually emerged during 4 years of research as a central issue in a story going back to the origins of physics with Pythagoras. The fact that there are so many physicists today writing about "the mind God" isn't a coincidence – it's been a thread in the development of physics since the start and can be seen as the latest iteration of the age-old quest for the "music of the spheres." The nexus of physics and religion has also served throughout its history as a powerful barrier to women.

  • Melissa
    2019-04-26 19:41

    It's a shame this book is out of print and hard to source. It gives a fresh perspective on the history of physics. It's facinating how our culture shapes and influences the way we see the world and interpret scientific facts. Pythagoras' Trousers does a great job of arguing that the Christian religion has shaped physics both as a science and as an instiutuion. While the history of women's contribution was interesting (and, as a woman, frustrating), this part of the book wasn't it's strength. As other reviewers have pointed out, the gender arguement was repetitive. But then again, maybe that's a reflection of the reality of women in science: repeatedly coming up against the barriers of exclusion by men.All in all, an easy bit insightful book to read, and an interesting thesis regarding influence if religion on the history of physics.

  • John
    2019-05-20 01:40

    A very interesting, readable, and novel history of physics and its interactions with faith. Not too detailed as to get tedious, but not too broad as to leave the reader without any personal connection to the individuals involved. Wertheim re-introduces the reader to the history of modern physics, noting especially the conscious and unconscious religiosity of science and the very conscious barring of women from the scientific realm. The truly remarkable fact that she reveals, however, is the continued lack of women from the realm of modern physics--as opposed to the life, biological, and chemical sciences. She compares modern physics and the search for the Theory of Everything to the all-male priesthood in the Catholic Church. Both of which, she notes, will be slow to change.A great and very interesting read for anyone interesting in the interaction between faith and science, or really all educated people.

  • Blaire
    2019-04-22 00:50

    I'm not sure the tripartite focus of this book was well-advised. Although the three subjects are related, I don't think the author was equally successful with each. I enjoyed the the history of physics most because I found it very informative and well-researched. I wish she had confined herself to that one subject. As it was, she glossed over a lot of history in the interests of keeping the length of the book relatively short. I found her writing both on the subject of religion and on women's lack of participation in physics historically to be repetitious and superficial. She made her few points again...and again...and again. Not that uncommon with authors who have an axe to grind, but tiresome nonetheless. Her best writing about women is in the chapter toward the end that is devoted to that subject.

  • Hans
    2019-05-19 01:50

    This book tells a fascinating story on the history of physics as told through the lens of feminism and religion. It asks, why are there so few women physicists? Could this be due to the priestly endeavors of modern physicists and the quest for a theory of everything (TOE) which, like the search for god, is a journey of faith, and not necessarily of science. I would recommend this for anyone with an interest in the history of science/physicist. Along the way you'll read of women scientists who have tried to gain a foothold in science but were denied by a male-quasi-religious hierarchy.

  • Anna
    2019-04-28 01:42

    Ahhh! So good! An awesome overview of the history of physics, simultaneously explaining the connection between the science and its priest-like religiosity, as well as its continued exclusion of women. Well researched and executed. Such a delight.

  • Sarah
    2019-04-28 20:44

    Aside from a terrific title, this book is turning out to have a fascinating thesis too: relating the frequently perceived religiosity of physics with the lack of women in the field. We'll see if she can pull it off.

  • Donna
    2019-04-25 17:44

    About one of the chapters actually explores women in physics, so not much of a enlightenment, here. Unfortunately, reads like a thesis from a grad student rather than being inspired by a fascinating history and the possibilities for future direction of science.

  • Lynda
    2019-05-14 19:42

    This is an interesting look at the history of science. Wertheim has a very clear agenda (how/why science was closed to women for so long) and at times I felt a bit bludgeoned by her agenda. It is, nevertheless, a worthy and interesting read.

  • Maryanne
    2019-05-13 20:00

    I loved this book then I leant it to someone NEVER AGAIN

  • Denise DeRocher
    2019-05-03 23:51

    Fantastic - a must-read whether or not you are into science, math, women's rights or general history!!

  • Terry Tonon
    2019-05-19 00:07

    If you like to think, you'll like this book--that simple.

  • Velvetink
    2019-04-28 00:49

    Margaret Wertheim wrote a piece for "Dick for a Day: What Would You Do If You Had One?" by Fiona Giles. In that she also mourns the fact that physics is one of the last bastions of male power.

  • Lissa Notreallywolf
    2019-05-17 20:08

    This was a very interesting overview in the relationship of gender and mathematics and physics.

  • Morgan Lewis
    2019-04-29 20:06

    My science brain needs some work, but this book is written so clearly that it distills a vast history of scientific and philosophic thought and simplifies it for anyone to understand. Learning about the intersections of religion, philosophy, science, and feminism was really interesting to me. It was a little frustrating at the end because not much progress has been made for women in the sciences—especially in physics—but the tone is hopeful and positive, and Wertheim brings to light many of the women that made significant contributions but who were lost or repressed over time.