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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

February 18, 1996|CHRIS GOODRICH

PYTHAGORAS' TROUSERS: God, Physics and the Gender Wars by Margaret Wertheim (Times Books: $23; 279 pp.). It's an interesting question why physics, of all the sciences, remains disproportionately inhospitable to women. Science writer Wertheim puts forward an equally interesting hypothesis: that women tend not to enter the field because physicists have "replaced theologians at the helm of epistemological power," making physics comparatively authoritarian and cabalistic, "the Catholic Church of science." Wertheim's argument is mainly historical and generally plausible, as she shows how many major figures in physics saw themselves in the presumptively male role of explaining God's work. The work of Copernicus, Kepler, Newton and Descartes, for example, may ultimately have led to increased agnosticism, but they were actually intent on finding God in the natural world; likewise, many modern physicists--from Albert Einstein to Stephen Hawking and Leon Lederman--often seem mystical with their unexpected references to God and faith. Wertheim's synthesis is sometimes simplistic and occasionally strident--yes, women scientists have been snubbed and ostracized for centuries, but is it really "extraordinary" that no woman has won the Nobel Prize for physics in the last 30 years?--yet she's addressing an important subject. Indeed: What would physics look like, and our concept of the universe, if women had been shaping its inquiries, molding its goals, questioning its premises, from the get-go?

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