Margaret Wertheim:

"Pythagoras's Trousers" (1997)

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Physics is mathematically-based science, and that idea originated in ancient Greece with Pythagoras and his followers (Pythagoras may or may not have been a real person). Wertheim briefly tells the story of how Pythagoras' thinking percolated down into the Renaissance. The Pythagoreans were a religious cult that exerted little influence on Greek thought, compared with Aristotle and Plato. Aristotle, in particular, represented a completely different approach towards explaining nature. Wertheim interprets Aristotle's success as a conscious decision by the ancient Greeks to reject mathematical science. During the late Roman empire both Christian and Pythagorean thinking invaded the empire. Wertheim emphasizes the life of Hypathia, a female Pythagorean thinker who was eventually killed by the mob after the Christian establishment chose to fight the "heretics". Wertheim points out that two major reforms of education, one by the Frank king Charlemagne and ony by pope Gregory VII three centuries later, assigned "higher education" to the Church and both prescribed Latin as the language of higher education (a language that was rapidly disappearing from daily use). The universities were in fact born inside Christian religious institutions. These were open only to men. Within these institutions Latin was taught (therefore only to men) and the Greek classics were rediscovered (therefore only by men). Women were excluded from both the content and the language of physics, and, in particular, from academic life. Wertheim thinks that the Church's mandate of celibacy for the clergy further emarginated women from education and science (Oxford and Cambridge fellows were still required to be unmarried as late as 1882).

She concludes that 1. Western physics was created within the framework and the infrastructure of the Christian religion; and 2. Western physics was inherently male.

Those universities rediscovered Aristotle and married his corpus to Christianity. Wertheim claims that a Pythagorean strand proceeded in parallel within those Christian institutions, and mentions Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon and eventually Nicholas of Cusa as the religious thinkers who sponsored a mathematical approach to science. She views Nicholas of Cusa as particularly influential because he married theory and practice, whereas the ancient Greeks never used their theories to solve practical problems (not true of the Hellenists, but Wertheim omits those centuries of pre-Roman Greek history). The Renaissance applied mathematics to just about everything, from painting to architecture.

She thinks that Copernicus' heliocentric theory painted God as a divine mathematician, and therefore she classifies Copernicus as an "unabashed Pythagorean". Her secondary evidence for this assumption is that Copernicus credited the Egyptian magician Hermes Trismegistus as an influence (this magician was later proven to have never existed) among many other influences. Kepler, to her, was a "great mathematical mystic ... motivated by Christo-Pythagorean inspiration". She thinks that magic played a major role in the Italian Renaissance, based on the popularity of the "hermetic" tradition after Marsilio Ficino's translation of the magic manual "Corpus Hermeticum", credited to Hermes Trismegistus. Using only one source for her conclusion (Frances Yates' 1964 book "Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition"), she thinks that Giordano Bruno, Italy's main champion of Copernicus, was "one of the greatest of all hermetic magi". Then she tells us that the Church reacted to the popularity (and the threat) of magic by allying with science. Science, personified by Mersenne and Gassendi, was busy demolishing the superstitions of the magic tradition. The God of scientists was the mathematician who had set the universe in motion. She also insinuates that the victory of science over magic represented another step in the discrimination of women because science shifted the power towards the male deity and away from the Mother Nature of the magi that had always been viewed as female.

Wertheim sees an alliance between Catholic Church and mathematical science even in Galileo's case. Wertheim revisits Galileo's famous trial and she argues that the Church was not punishing him for his scientific theories but simply for presenting them as facts when they were just hypotheses. Galileo had no direct evidence to support Copernicus' theory that the Earth moves. Therefore the heliocentric theory was just that: a theory, not a fact. In her opinion, the Church forced him not to "recant" but to admit that he had no final proof. The Church, basically, did what every good scientific body does: demand an empirical proof.

Descartes separated science (that studies matter) and religion (that studies the soul), but the two disciplines inevitably ended up colliding because they provided different stories of the world. Newton, however, went out of his way to present his physics as supporting and proving the existence of the Christian God. Newton assumed that God was behind the current arrangement of the universe, and, of course, behind the mathematical formulas that governed its evolution. Newton revered Pythagoras. Wertheim sees his mission as being one to use mathematical science to reinforce (not weaken) religion. In fact, she thinks that Newton became so influential precisely because he struck an alliance with the Anglican church, an alliance well represented by the Boyle lectures of the 1690s, each devoted to prove God using the new physics.

Francis Bacon's "New Atlantis" (1627) saw science as the vehicle to building a better Christian society. And that has remained the secret ideological mission of Western science, according to Wertheim. Wertheim feels that book titles such as Paul Davies' "The Mind of God" and Leon Lederman's "The God Particle" prove that the religious bias is still there (I suspect that the titles were chosen by the marketing departments of the publishers, and, at best, they show a religious bias in marketing people, not in physicists). Einstein was, after all, "canonized" by science, becoming a sort of saint if not a sort of deity. She also feels that the tiny percentage of women active in physics today is a consequence of this persistent "clerical" view of the physicist. I find both these claims hard to believe. There are certainly biases against women in science (and engineering), but i doubt that they are due to the physicist's priestly attitude. I suspect that they have more to do with the way girls are raised to become schoolteachers instead of becoming scientists and engineers. However, that tradition might indeed be a legacy of the medieval religious bias.

Wertheim concludes with a chapter that talks about how female scientists tend to focus on cooperation rather than competition (her opinion, not mine) and encouraging society to reject the religious undercurrent that she has found in Western science. This is all vastly exaggerated and subjective.

Along the way she sketches biographies of each major scientist that seemed totally redundant to me. And along the way she mentions all the female scientists and mathematicians who never had a chance to excel the way their male counterparts did. The two threads ("mathematical science is religion" and "women are excluded from mathematical science") proceed in parallel.