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Nancey Murphy

Gender Warp: Does physics need a sex change?

Why are physicists almost always men? Why, at a time when women are increasingly well represented in biology, chemistry, and mathematics, does physics remain a male preserve?

In this prize-winning book (an award from the Templeton Foundation for outstanding books in theology and the natural sciences), Margaret Wertheim, a highly skilled science writer, proposes a surprising and provocative answer to those questions.

The explanation, Wertheim argues, lies in the religious motivations behind the development of mathematical physics: the exclusion of women from physics is largely a result of the association of physics with religion. Physicists are an association of priests, and women are seen as unfit for membership for the same sorts of reasons that they have been barred from ordination. Wertheim makes a strong case, but even if the reader does not accept this final conclusion, the evidence provided for both the marginalization of women and for the religious origins of science itself is quite compelling. In support of the latter, she deftly traces the history of mathematical physics from its origins through the current search for a Theory of Everything.

Wertheim's story begins with Pythagoras of Samos (c. 570-500 b.c.), "who fused the rationalism of the West with a mysticism he learned from the East and created a unique philosophy cum science cum religion. From the seed of his extraordinary vision would be born the science of modern physics." Pythagoras believed that, as divine knowledge, mathematics should be revealed only to those who had purified both mind and body; his followers approached its study "in the spirit of a priesthood." The intriguing title of the book comes from the fact that Pythagoras wore the trousers of the Persians rather than the robes of the Greeks. Pythagoras's trousers symbolized for him the Eastern, religious associations of physics; for contemporary readers they symbolize the male dominance in the field.

The Pythagorean belief in the mathematical ...

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