Yes, mathematics used to have its own cult.

Often here at, we talk about the “Man” keeping us down in terms of science and skepticism. Or the possibility thereof. It came as news to me to discover that the “Man” is Pythagoras. You know, he of the theorem? At least, so says Margaret Wertheim in the New York Times article, “Numbers are Male, Said Pythagoras.”

The writer presents an interesting look at the start of the Pythagorian cult, and how it established that men were the ones to do all the cerebral work while women were more into the spiritual side of things. I think this was hardly something new even in those days, but maybe it did provide a sort of gateway, taking that sort of thinking from religion and transferring it into science. I hate to write about something I haven’t reread carefully yet, but I’m a bit short on time and wanted you guys to see the article before the NY Times archives it.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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  1. Pythagoras was a strange guy, though he is the subject of so much legend it is almost impossible to know where muth ends and reality begins.

    Over a decade ago when I was a math grad student, I remember a discussion I had with an officemate, a rare white female math grad student. I asked her if it bothered her that there were so few women in mathematics. She said, and I quote, "not really". Ultimately, her view came down to "Why should I care?" I responded that even if she didn't there was any unfairness involved that surely it was a loss to the discipline that so many of those who might contribute are not around to do so. She agreed, but unenthusiastically.

    I found this reaction to be consistant among the women in mathematics I spoke to. They either didn't care or didn't admit to caring. It was just one department, so I don't know how indicative it was, but that's not exactly an environment for change.

  2. I can't type. Obviously, "muth" is "myth", but a sentence further down should read "I responded that even if she didn’t think there was any unfairness involved that surely it was a loss to the discipline that so many of those who might contribute are not around to do so."

    I left the "think" out. There is something symbolic there…

  3. Okay, I would like to see some sources on this. Yes, there was the cult of Pythagoreans, which included many male and female members, but some of those female members where great mathermaticians in thier own rights, including Pythagoras' own wife Theano.

    As for maleness of numbers, Pythagoras considered even numbers to be female, and odd numbers (starting from three) to be male.

  4. Well, Rebecca's source is clearly the linked NYT article. Of course, newspaper articles rarely come with bibliographies, but this particular one came with a note in the footer: "Margaret Wertheim is the author of “Pythagoras’ Trousers,” a cultural history of physics and women." Margaret Wertheim being the woman who wrote the NYT article. Presumably her book is on roughly the same topic and does contain a bibliography.

  5. Interesting article, with good insight into more recent eras; but when it comes to the Pythagorean cult, wonderfully ill-informed. To begin with, the Pythagoreans & the Cynics were the only schools of Greek thought which encouraged women into their schools; & @ no point did they equate numbers with masculinity (the garbled headline of the NYT article appears to derive from the table of opposites, where men were equated with odd numbers; women with even numbers). There are plenty of nastinesses you can legitimately acuse the Pythagoreans of – a religious approach to sometimes crackpot knowledge which made them the Scientologists of their day – but a particular misogynism isn't one of them

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