Today, let's talk about physics, religion, and
gender. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
A recent book by Margaret
Wertheim enters a domain where few feminists have
chosen to go. In Pythagoras' Trousers: God,
Physics, and the Gender Wars, she asks: Why
are math and physics the last fields that've been
opening up to women? Her answer takes shape as she
looks at the relation between physics and religion.
Many of today's theoretical physicists are trying
to formulate A Theory of Everything -- a
theory so broad and far-reaching that it
encompasses the whole of things. Instead of
standing over and against religion, as it seemed to
do in the 19th century, physics is now moving into
the heartland of religion itself.
But physics and religion weren't separate pursuits
until the 17th century. The idea that they're
different has only been afoot during the past 400
years. Now, once again, physicists are creating a
literature couched in bluntly theological language.
For example, Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman picks
that theme up in his book, The God
Particle. The great cosmologist Stephen
Hawking repeatedly invokes the Mind of God in his
To make sense of that, Wertheim takes us back into
history. She literally begins with Pythagoras'
formed his religious commune in Italy around 600
BC. Contrary to Greek custom, the men grew beards
and wore trousers. And it was only those trousered
Pythagoreans who accepted women as intellectuals.
Greece generally denied women any place in the life
of the mind.
The Pythagoreans looked for God in math, music and
symmetry. Mathematical physics was their religion.
And that set the pattern for physics for the next
2200 years. But mathematicians and physicists were
like any other priests and, once outside the
Pythagorean community, Greece gave women no part in
Plato's admiration for Pythagoras opened one crack
in that armor of male dominance. When the Medieval
Church formed around Neoplatonism, women finally
regained a niche in intellectual life. Only the
Catholic priesthood (and physics) remained male.
It was in the 17th century that natural philosophy
(physics) split away from theology. When it did,
the maleness of priesthood stayed in place. And so
it has done until very recently.
Now two remarkable changes are upon us. The
religious priesthood is opening back up to women
for the first time in 3000 years. And physics once
more sees itself linked to religious questions.
Where all this will come out is anyone's guess. But
Wertheim believes that Theories of
Everything are, by their nature, as arcane as
questions about angels dancing on heads of pins.
Perhaps we need women in the priesthood of physics
just to bring it back to the hard earth -- to the
pastoral matter of our earthly sustenance. Wertheim
wonders if physics isn't due to leave questions
about the Mind of God, in favor of questions about
our physical nurture.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds