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Ancient Greece, Medieval Europe and Teenage Girls
Renowned science writer and commentator Margaret Wertheim traces the history of women’s exclusion from science and physics.
Margaret Wertheim, seated, signs copies of her book for attendees of a recent lecture at UCR.
What do ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras, the medieval Catholic Church and teenage girls have in common?
A lot, according to internationally renowned science writer and commentator Margaret Wertheim, who spoke and signed books at an ALPHA Center-sponsored event at the Pentland Hills Residence Hall on March 21.
These links are a central theme of her 1995 book “Pythagoras’ Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars.”
Pythagoras’ link of mathematics and religion gained currency in medieval Catholic Europe, which added its male bias, Wertheim’s book says. This bias has lingered today in the dearth of women in the sciences and particularly, in physics.
The germ for her book came after a career of writing science for the non-scientist in publications such as the “New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Sciences, New Scientist, The Times Literary Supplement, Salon and Wired.
After doing her own studies of popular scientific publications, Wertheim determined they were written for mostly affluent white males age 40 and older.
“What about the female audience? Who’s writing for them,” she asked.
As it turns out, it’s been Wertheim for the past decade, writing science articles for such women’s magazine giants as Elle, Glamour, and Vogue, all of whose readership dwarf those of magazines such as Popular Science.
She’s also produced two award-winning television series: “Catalyst” for the Australian Broadcasting System and “Faith and Reason” for the Public Broadcasting System in the United States.
So how have women been shut out of the scientific picture?
Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician and philosopher credited with laying the foundation of physics, argued for mathematics as a window into the mind of the universe’s creator by explaining the workings of the natural world.
“Ultimately, femaleness became equated with the material and mundane and maleness became equated with the transcendent,” she said. “This Pythagorean thrust became the driving force behind western scientific thought.”
When universities emerged during the 12th century, they trained the all-male clergy, leaving women shut out. This system persevered well into the 19th century and, in some cases, the early 20th century.
“This explains the current belief among young girls that love of science and math isn’t feminine and so, they avoid it,” Wertheim said.