First Things 68 (December 1996): 44-47

Books in Review

Briefly Noted


By Nancy Pearcey

Pythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars
By Margaret Wertheim. Random House. 279 pp. $23.

Contrary to what the subtitle night suggest, this book is no feminist screed, but an even-toned, readable, and philosophically astute claim that mathematics (and hence mathematical physics) has historically ever been intertwined with religious and mystical themes. The book opens with Pythagoras, who regarded numbers as divine and founded a religious community to study the mysteries of geometry. Centuries later, many of the early scientists revived the Pythagorean/Platonic tradition and merged it with Christian faith, a blend that inspired Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, and others. Today physics continues to have quasi-religious overtones, as contemporary scientists endow their books with titles such as The God Particle and The Mind of God. As a secondary thesis, Wertheim argues that this religious dimension explains why the scientific community has historically included so few women. Many of the early scientists regarded themselves as "priests of God" (in Kepler's phrase) and adopted a monastic model excluding women from education and science societies, a practice that continued until surprisingly recently. Wertheim weaves her two theses together persuasively, and more importantly she produced a rarity: a book of popular science that skillfully treats the deep and enduring association of science and religion.

Copyright © 1996 First Things 68 (December 1996): 44-47. Nancy Pearcey. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 10.14.99