Pythagoras debagged

Margaret Wertheim is a physicist with no masculine delusions of grandeur. By Ruth Picardie
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When it comes to stars, the notion that science is the new rock'n'roll is a little hard to stand up. Stephen Hawking as Liam Gallagher? Dolly the sheep as one of the Spice Girls? ... No, no, no. This metaphor isn't working at all.

But with Margaret Wertheim, author of a widely praised new book on the history of physics, we're on to something. Naturally, she is super-talented: at seven, she discovered irrational numbers; at 10, she grasped the concept of Pi; she has degrees in physics and maths and computing. Then, there's her rock 'n' roll family: one sister was a heroin addict for 15 years, her brother still is; Wertheim herself had a breakdown as a child.

Finally, unlike 99 per cent of the scientific community, Wertheim is a babe. Once desribed as "the Naomi Wolf of science", she helped pay her way through university, in her native Australia, by modelling and, at 19, made the cover of Vogue. Today, with pale skin, huge brown eyes and dark, lustrous hair, she is tiny, husky voiced and severely chic in a tailored silk jacket, black, boot-cut trousers and high heels. In the lobby of the hotel, I mistake her not for a 38-year-old science writer but an Italian starlet - despite her announcement, when we finally connect, "I feel like my eyes are falling out of my head this morning." (She is jet-lagged, after flying over from California, where she lives with her husband, a composer for film and television.)

Ironically, Wertheim would hate to be thought of as the Marianne Faithfull of science. For her mission, in Pythagoras' Trousers: God, physics and gender wars (Fourth Estate) is to demystify physics. Specifically, it is her contention that the establishment of mathematics as something beyond nature and therefore divine, first by Pythagoras in the 6th century BC, then in the late Middle Ages, and finally by Newton, Einstein and today's "Theory of Everything" physicists, notably Stephen Hawking, has been its unmaking.

"When I was doing physics in the late Seventies," Wertheim explains over a pot of peppermint tea, "it was associated with weaponry, the bomb, and was very uncool and unglamorous. But just at the time I was finishing, a couple of books - notably The Tao of Physics - came out that made parallels between physics and eastern mysticism. So people started to see physics as a quasi-spiritual activity. Then books started to appear with names like The Mind Of God and God And The New Physics. Now God has become the PR mascot for physics."

The problem, argues Wertheim, with the Theory of Everything which is an attempt to understand the origins of the universe by uniting relativity and quantum mechanics (that is, space, time, all forces and all particles) in a single mathematical equation, is that it has turned the subject into a decadent, women-excluding sect - with Stephen Hawking as its "crippled seer" - which is in danger of falling into a moral black hole.

"I don't think there's anything immoral about doing the theory," explains Wertheim, "because, in theory, all it takes is a blackboard and chalk and a salary. In fact, I hope I live to see the unification of relativity and quantum mechanics - as a physics student you couldn't hope for anything else. My reservation comes only when it involves spending billions and billions of dollars [on particle accelerators]."

Why? "Physicists who are working on the theory of everything, even its greatest champions, acknowledge it is not going to have any practical applications, not even for the military. Because the conditions of the physical universe simply don't exist any more for this stuff. They only existed in the split second after the Big Bang, 15 billion years ago. So it's not even going to lead to better bombs.

"The TOE people say, `We're doing this because it's truth and truth is beauty, that it's such a beautiful and wonderful truth that it's worth the money'. I think it is a great aesthetic endeavour and I want to see it happen but if it's primarly giving us beauty and its greatest value is aesthetic then surely they should be competing with the arts budget. And if so, why should they get $13 billion when we're cutting back on money for every other form of arts?

"I don't have a problem if society collectively makes that decision - I don't want to dictate that we should spend money on x and not on y. What I want to say is let society be involved in determining where our society does go. And it has to be asked why is there billions of dollars available for things like the Hubble telescope and there's not billions of dollars to investigate new forms of contraception?"

Convincing as Wertheim's argument is, it is obvious that the book is also a working out of her own, more personal demons. That she should be antagonistic to the links between physics and religion is unsurprising, given her mother's experience of Catholicism. "My mother had six children in five and a half years and she couldn't believe that God wanted her to have any more children, and I agree. For her to go on the Pill in the mid-Sixties meant leaving the Catholic church."

Similarly, her sense that the world is against women was born in the womb: one of identical twins (her sister, Christine, teaches critical theory at Goldsmiths college in London), Wertheim's mother was in labour for 48 hours. Premature, weighing only 3lb and crushed in the birth canal, Wertheim spent the beginning of her life in an incubator and wasn't picked up until she was six weeks old.

If she was born of women's suffering (and Wertheim has chosen not to have any children of her own, so far), she grew up under the oppressive arm of men: "I had a father who was a misogynist who believed that girls had no right to live on planet earth." Later, she experienced the same exclusion in class: "My maths teacher made it very clear the girls were irrelevant. He didn't care about us and he didn't encourage us. He made us feel like complete nonentities."

Finally, it was the chaos of her parents marriage - which ended when she was 14 - which led to her interest in maths. "I come from a very dysfunctional Catholic family. Even as a child it was very clear to me that the world was chaotic. But I remember getting the sense that as well as the physical world that I experienced with my senses there was this mathematical world that was calm and clear and beautiful. I was drawn to the very thing that I end up critiquing in my book - the apparent stillness of mathematics." Strange world. But, hey, that's rock'n'rolln

`Pythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics and the Gender Wars' is published by Fourth Estate, pounds 9.99.