The problem goes back to the ancient Greeks, particularly to Pythagoras, the philosophical giant who dreamed the dream that became modern physics. Pythagoras almost certainly learned his famous theorem about right-angled triangles from the Babylonians, but we owe to him a far greater idea: “All is number,” he declared, becoming the first person to say that the physical world could be described by the language of mathematics.
Pythagoras also gave us the idea of the “music of the spheres,” a set of mathematical relationships that would describe the structure of the universe itself. His vision would eventually give rise to the scientific revolution led by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton. The search for a theory of everything today is the latest version of the ancient Pythagorean quest for divine “cosmic harmonies.”
Though many cultures have developed sophisticated mathematical traditions, including the Chinese, the Arabs, the Indians and the Mayans, the West is the one that came to see the material world as an embodiment of mathematical laws. And from the beginning, the search for such laws was viewed as an innately male activity.
The Pythagorean society of the fifth century B.C. was a cradle of mathematical research, but Pythagoreanism was also a religion, and like many Greek cults its beliefs were dualistic. For Pythagoreans, reality consisted of two parts: on one side were the mind and spirit and the transcendent realm of the gods; on the other side were the body and matter and the mundane realm of the earth. Like many Greek thinkers, the Pythagoreans associated the mind/spirit side of reality with maleness and the body/matter side with femaleness.
Pythagoras introduced numbers into this mix and put them on the male side of the ledger. In the Pythagorean system, thinking about numbers, or doing mathematics, was an inherently masculine task. Mathematics was associated with the gods, and with transcendence from the material world; women, by their nature, were supposedly rooted in this latter, baser realm.
At the end of the Middle Ages, Pythagorean interest in a mathematical approach to science began to gain ground, and it is here that we begin to see the seeds of modern physics.
“The creation of number was the creation of things,” Thierry of Chartres wrote in the 12th century, when the first universities were formed and academic learning was formalized. The universities were founded to educate the clergy, and since women could not be priests they could not attend. Many university departments did not admit women at all until the early 20th century, and physics departments were often among the last to accept students and professors who were women.
The Pythagorean association of mathematics with transcendence was easily imported into a Christian context, giving rise to the idea of the Judeo-Christian god as a mathematical creator. When Stephen Hawking links a theory of everything to the mind of god today, he is reiterating an essentially Pythagorean view. But this godly-mathematical connection also sat easily with the Catholic tradition of a male-only priesthood. Thus, from the start, women were excluded from this academic field and its associated sciences.
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