Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1124:
THE NEW RELIGION

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1124.

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 physics.

To make sense of that, Wertheim takes us back into history. She literally begins with Pythagoras' trousers. 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 priesthood.

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 work.

(Theme music)


Wertheim, M., Pythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars. New York: Random House, 1995


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The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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