Pythagoras’ Trousers

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Margaret Wertheim’s PYTHAGORAS’ TROUSERS attempts to explain why physics has traditionally been a male bastion. The author’s answer is that physics is an outgrowth of natural theology—the search for God without recourse to scripture. She suggests that physics shares with Christianity its exclusively male “priesthood,” its proprietary sense towards questions concerning the origin of the universe, and its emphasis upon hierarchy, with certain types of knowledge regarded as inherently more valuable than others.

PYTHAGORAS’ TROUSERS is most successful when it challenges the use of phrases such as “the mind of God” and “the God particle” by contemporary physicists. It is less persuasive when it wallows in victimization. Through such figures as Maria Cunitz (1610-1664), Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), and Maria Winklemann (1670-1720), Wertheim presents the history of science as little more than a chronicle of sexual oppression. Ultimately, her argument proves unconvincing. After several chapters demonstrating that there is no difference between men and women in their mathematical ability or scientific interest, Wertheim then undermines her entire thesis by claiming that women physicists would contribute a “feminist” approach to science, with greater concern for social issues and less pursuit of “the Truth” for its own sake.

PYTHAGORAS’ TROUSERS contains significant factual inaccuracies. On page 45, for instance, Wertheim says that Abelard was “castrated by an angry mob when his marriage to Heloise became public”; Abelard’s emasculation was actually caused by servants of Heloise’s uncle. On page 149, Wertheim describes the Enlightenment as “the first time in history [that] women’s disenfranchisement was enshrined in law”; restrictions on women’s rights to vote and own property appear in lawcodes many thousands of years earlier. These and other errors will cause readers to question the accuracy of Wertheim’s account.