God, Physics, and the Gender Wars
by Margaret Wertheim
In Pythathagoras’ Trousers, the author Margaret Wertheim set out to write the wonderful history of all the women who contributed to physics over the centuries. However, she discovered that the history of women in physics was not wonderful at all. The information she found was more like the history of women being excluded from physics. She attributes this to the culture of physics, which has existed in an elitist, priest-like way since the days of Pythagoras and his secret society.
In the past, the secrets of physics were written in Latin, a language only priests were likely to learn at the time. Latin was mostly a written language, not commonly spoken, and the layperson, both men and women, did not have access to such elite knowledge. Galileo started to write about science in Italian for the public to read, and this behavior definitely got him into trouble with the Church.
Who are the women who succeeded in physics? The book discusses several women, including Marie Curie and Hypatia, to name a few.
These women succeeded when an enlightened individual decided there was no reason a woman couldn’t learn the science that he knew. When there is such a strong current in the culture discouraging women to learn physics, to counter that current it takes a lot of encouragement for women to succeed, and that is still true today.
According to this book, there is a long history of women in physics being oppressed. This is a direct result of men preventing women from learning, which could be related to the patriarchal power structure of the Church.
Today, as we discuss the progress of women in STEM fields, many wonder why women are still underrepresented in the field of physics. After all, women are well-represented and respected in almost all fields of science, while physics alone lingers with an underrepresentation of women. The author posits that “physics as a religion” may turn women away from the field. I won’t tell you all of her opinions; however, she discusses the search for the god particle and the almost religious hero worship of physicists like Einstein.
Why should you read this book? As a physicist or physics teacher, you will learn more about what women must overcome to become eminent in the field of physics. What does it take to mentor women into becoming successful physics? After reading, you might be more likely to take that extra step in encouraging your female physics students to stick with it. You could be that enlightened individual who encourages young women to persevere in the field, just like the mentors of Hypatia and Marie Curie.
After reading this book, I hope you will be inspired to rewrite the story of physics from an exclusive club to a more inclusive and inviting culture of physics.