The Beatrice Interview

Margaret Wertheim

"Women who are outsiders are already forced to address issues that the insiders don't have to face."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

In Pythagoras' Trousers, Margaret Wertheim offers a social and cultural history of physics, from the Pythagorean cult to the present day, in which she demonstrates that physics has always had its spiritual components. In addition, she elaborates upon the relationship between physicists and Christianity, pointing out that the educational advances that made scientific progress possible often had their roots in clerical administration. Far from being confrontational to religion, Wertheim determines, many scientists saw no contradiction between their faith and their research, and it was only in the nineteenth century, with the fractious split between religion and science over Darwinism, that historians of science began to recast history in terms of such a conflict. Furthermore, the contemporary quest in physics for the "Theory of Everything" (or TOE), the underlying pattern of the cosmos, is a spiritual quest -- as Stephen Hawking has said, it is an attempt to know "the mind of God."

I spoke to Ms. Wertheim about this spiritual quest, but more importantly about how the quasireligious aspects of physics have historically excluded women from the ranks of physicists, even as they make significant progress in other scientific fields. We also discussed the ramifications this history has had on the contemporary mindset of theoretical physics -- the problems that Wertheim believes exist with the pursuit of the TOE, and the steps that can be taken to remedy the situation.

RH: You talk in the opening section of the book about how you were drawn to math and physics as a young woman. What led you to writing about science rather than pursuing a career as a scientist?

MW: For me, I was one of those children who loved math from the very beginning. I remember a lesson where we were taught about the existence of pi; it was like a religious experience for me in many ways, and I knew from then on that I wanted to do math and science when I grew up. I read about Einstein in a children's encyclopedia and he became my hero. I didn't know what relativity was, but I knew it was something great, and I knew that when I grew up, that's what I wanted to know about. And I did -- when I went to university, I did physics, and relativity was everything I wanted it to be and more.

I had every intention of becoming a research physicist, but I ultimately left the field because I found the whole culture -- of science in general, and of physics in particular -- alienating. Partly because I was the only woman: I had no women teachers or mentors, and found it very difficult to be the only woman in an all-male environment. I left and basically have written about science and technology ever since.

For a long time, I've wanted to write a book about physics as I saw it, which is as a beautiful way of understanding the world around us. I was particularly inspired because a number of my friends had tried to read other physics books and couldn't get past the first two or three chapters before they would come to me and ask me to help them understand... so it seemed to me that there was a tremendous gap, that nobody was writing about physics in a way that was really accessible to non-science people. I wanted to write a book that would explain physics to intelligent people that didn't know much about science. And the way to do that, I thought, was by putting it in a cultural context -- much science writing gives us the answers, but it doesn't help us understand why the questions matter. Why does it matter whether the earth goes around the sun, or the sun around the earth? It's not just a matter of celestial geometry; it actually has real cultural meaning...

That was my primary aim: to write a book about physics that would put it into a cultural context. And I had in the back of my head an idea, that I would like to try to shed some light on a question that had confronted me as a woman in physics: why was it so difficult for women to get ahead in physics? why was it the one field of science where they still hadn't significantly broken into? When I started, I didn't start out with any particular thesis, but it gradually became clear to me, as I read more and more of the history of physics, was that physics was the one branch of science that has historically been most closely linked to religion, and remains a quasireligious pursuit even today. And that the historical struggle of women to get into science reflects their historical struggle to get into the clergy -- to interpret the book of God and the book of Nature.

RH: One of the interesting points developing out of that thesis is that modern physics has become -- I don't want to say abstract, but it's become somewhat of a pursuit unto itself, and that it should take material reality more into account.

MW: Physics is still the great love of my life, and I really have hoped to see in my lifetime relativity and quantum physics unified into a Theory of Everything, and in my heart I still wish to see that. In some ways, that's a very abstract goal. I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with abstract goals; if we could do this within a reasonable cost limit, I would be the first to say, "Give them the money." But I think there's a problem in saying that in order to realize this goal, our society is going to have to spend literally tens of billions of dollars -- it isn't that the goal is unworthy. But even its greatest admirers admit that as beautiful as the TOE would be, it doesn't have much practical use, and when it comes to the social cost, you have to ask why taxpayers should pay billions of dollars for this work of beauty, anymore than they should spend billions of dollars to stage an opera, or to have an artist paint a beautiful picture. When physics is competing with art for our tax dollars, I don't think we can justify spending billions of dollars on an aesthetic whim.

One of the things that has been missing from the dialogue about science in our society, especially physics, is the need to justify spending large sums of money in terms of the overall social good. The money that we spend on a supercollider to find one subatomic particle is money that doesn't get put to other, more practical uses. And I think that physics has gotten a bit too focused, a bit too obsessed, on these theoretical pursuits.

RH: Looking at it from the religious parallels you set up in the book, it's like paying billions for Trappist monks to spend their lives in contemplation.

MW: That's absolutely right. The analogy is a good one; when I was doing physics, I felt we were being treated like monks, that when we walked into the door each day, we were abandoning the worldly reality for a realm of pure, transcendent truth. And that can be a tremendously appealing thing, but as you say, should we spend billions of dollars on meditating?

RH: You steer away from claiming that bringing women into physics would inherently cause a breakaway from this theoretical tendency, but you do make the point that a significant influx of women into the field would by necessity change the overall ethos and mindset of the scientific community.

MW: I certainly don't believe that women are innately different than men; I think it's a question of different forms of acculturation. It's my view that physics needs to get back into it some of the qualities that have traditionally been acculturated into women. In order to justify that claim, we can look at a scientific discipline where that kind of reacculturation has occurred, like biology. In the last twenty or thirty years, with a significant number of women joining the field of biology, there has been significant change. One concrete example is the shift from theoretical models of competition to models of cooperation. And male biologists are studying cooperation as well -- it's not that only women will take new approaches, it's that they will ask the new questions that will lead to new approachesthat everyone can use. It seems to me that it is a very sane conclusion to say that that can happen in other branches of science like physics.

RH: You also propose that women in physics, by the very nature of their rarity in the field, are more inclined to look at physics from a critical perspective, because they already are constantly questioning and evaluating their presence in the field, leading to broader contemplation about what the field means to them, and ultimately what it means period.

MW: Women who are outsiders are already forced to address issues that the insiders don't have to face. In the last thirty or forty years, the one field of physics in which women have made significant inroads has been astrophysics, and a number of women have made significant contributions to astrophysics in that period, because they asked questions that most astrophysicists thought they already knew the answers or that the answers weren't important.

RH: One point that needs to be reiterated is that most non- scientists tend to look at science as a sort of perspectively neutral discipline: there's an answer out there, and the scientists go out and find it. What this book and your examples here say is that science is not a quest for abstract, neutral truth, but is very much rooted in our attitudes and beliefs as men and women. It has a common quality with religion, then, in that it is concerned with questions about our own identity.

MW: In the seventeenth century, scientists, especially physicists, tried to create what they thought would be an entirely objective, neutral version of the truth. And they honestly believed that they had discovered, in mathematically based science, a form of truth totally independent of human culture. I think their belief was sincere, but what contemporary histories and philosophies of science has shown us is that even when you use the tools of mathematics, there is no such thing as neutal science.

You always have to a metaphor of what you do. In the seventeenth century, they used the metaphor of the machine; today, we use the metaphor of information processes. Science always proceeds by being informed by cultural metaphors. It can no more remove itself from culture than any of us can.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Joan Jacobs Brumberg | Kate Fillion

All materials copyright © 1996 Ron Hogan