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Figuring
Cover of Figuring
Figuring
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Figuring explores the complexities of love and the human search for truth and meaning through the interconnected lives of several historical figures across four centuries—beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement.
Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists—mostly women, mostly queer—whose public contribution has risen out of their unclassifiable and often heartbreaking private relationships to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe. Among them are the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who did the same in art; the journalist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who sparked the feminist movement; and the poet Emily Dickinson.
Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world: Are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Weaving through the narrative is a set of peripheral figures—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman—and a tapestry of themes spanning music, feminism, the history of science, the rise and decline of religion, and how the intersection of astronomy, poetry, and Transcendentalist philosophy fomented the environmental movement.
Figuring explores the complexities of love and the human search for truth and meaning through the interconnected lives of several historical figures across four centuries—beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement.
Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists—mostly women, mostly queer—whose public contribution has risen out of their unclassifiable and often heartbreaking private relationships to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe. Among them are the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who did the same in art; the journalist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who sparked the feminist movement; and the poet Emily Dickinson.
Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world: Are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Weaving through the narrative is a set of peripheral figures—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman—and a tapestry of themes spanning music, feminism, the history of science, the rise and decline of religion, and how the intersection of astronomy, poetry, and Transcendentalist philosophy fomented the environmental movement.
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  • From the book 0

    All of it—the rings of Saturn and my father's wedding band, the underbelly of the clouds pinked by the rising sun, Einstein's brain bathing in a jar of formaldehyde, every grain of sand that made the glass that made the jar and each idea Einstein ever had, the shep­herdess singing in the Rila mountains of my native Bulgaria and each one of her sheep, every hair on Chance's velveteen dog ears and Marianne Moore's red braid and the whiskers of Montaigne's cat, every translucent fingernail on my friend Amanda's newborn son, every stone with which Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets before wading into the River Ouse to drown, every copper atom composing the disc that carried arias aboard the first human-made object to enter interstellar space and every oak splinter of the floor­boards onto which Beethoven collapsed in the fit of fury that cost him his hearing, the wetness of every tear that has ever been wept over a grave and the yellow of the beak of every raven that has ever watched the weepers, every cell in Galileo's fleshy finger and every molecule of gas and dust that made the moons of Jupiter to which it pointed, the Dipper of freckles constellating the olive firmament of a certain forearm I love and every axonal flutter of the tender­ness with which I love her, all the facts and figments by which we are perpetually figuring and reconfiguring reality—it all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i, the I lowered from the pedestal of ego.

    How can we know this and still succumb to the illusion of separ­ateness, of otherness? This veneer must have been what the conflu­ence of accidents and atoms known as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saw through when he spoke of our "inescapable network of mutu­ality," what Walt Whitman punctured when he wrote that "every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

    One autumn morning, as I read a dead poet's letters in my friend Wendy's backyard in San Francisco, I glimpse a fragment of that atomic mutuality. Midsentence, my peripheral vision—that glory of instinct honed by millennia of evolution—pulls me toward a mirac­ulous sight: a small, shimmering red leaf twirling in midair. It seems for a moment to be dancing its final descent. But no—it remains sus­pended there, six feet above ground, orbiting an invisible center by an invisible force. For an instant I can see how such imperceptible causalities could drive the human mind to superstition, could impel medieval villagers to seek explanation in magic and witchcraft. But then I step closer and notice a fine spider's web glistening in the air above the leaf, conspiring with gravity in this spinning miracle.

    Neither the spider has planned for the leaf nor the leaf for the spider—and yet there they are, an accidental pendulum propelled by the same forces that cradle the moons of Jupiter in orbit, animated into this ephemeral early-morning splendor by eternal cosmic laws impervious to beauty and indifferent to meaning, yet replete with both to the bewildered human consciousness beholding it.

    We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins. We snatch our freeze-frame of life from the simultaneity of existence by holding on to illusions of permanence, congruence, and linearity; of static selves and lives that unfold in sensical narratives. All the while, we mistake chance for choice, our labels and models of things for the things themselves, our records for our history. History is not what happened, but...
About the Author-
  • MARIA POPOVA is a reader and a writer, and writes about what she reads on Brain Pickings (brainpickings.org), which is included in the Library of Congress permanent digital archive of culturally valuable materials. She hosts The Universe in Verse—an annual celebration of science through poetry—at the interdisciplinary cultural center Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. She grew up in Bulgaria immersed in music and mathematics.
Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    Starred review from January 1, 2019
    The polymathic Popova, presiding genius behind brainpickings.org, looks at some of the forgotten heroes of science, art, and culture."There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives," writes the author at the outset. She closes with the realization that while we individuals may die, the beauty of our lives and work, if meaningful, will endure: "What will survive of us are shoreless seeds and stardust." In between, she peppers thoughtful, lucid consideration of acts of the imagination with stories that, if ever aired before, are too little known. Who would have remembered that of all the details of the pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler's life, one was racing across Germany to come to the aid of his widowed mother, who had been charged with witchcraft? The incident ably frames Kepler's breaking out of a world governed by superstition, "a world in which God is mightier than nature, the Devil realer and more omnipresent than gravity," and into a radical, entirely different world governed by science. That world saw many revolutions and advances ahead of the general population, as when, in 1865, Vassar College appointed as its first professor of astronomy a woman, Maria Mitchell, who combined a brilliant command of science with a yearning for poetry. So it was with Rachel Carson, the great ecologist, whose love for a woman lasted across a life burdened with terrible illness, and Emily Dickinson, who might have been happier had her own love for a woman been realized. (As it was, Popova notes, the world was ready for Dickinson: A book of her poems published four years after her death sold 500 copies on the first day of publication.) Throughout her complex, consistently stimulating narrative, the author blends biography, cultural criticism, and journalism to forge elegant connections: Dickinson feeds in to Carson, who looks back to Mitchell, who looks forward to Popova herself, and with plenty of milestones along the way: Kepler, Goethe, Pauli, Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne....A lyrical work of intellectual history, one that Popova's many followers will await eagerly and that deserves to win her many more.

    COPYRIGHT(2019) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    February 1, 2019

    The early 19th-century transcendentalists included many extraordinary individuals, the most famous being Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. But they are merely supporting characters in this queer-, female-centric narrative from Popova (A Velocity of Being). This work features astronomer Maria Mitchell (familiar to readers of Dava Sobel's The Glass Universe); poet Emily Dickinson; marine biologist and environmental author Rachel Carson; and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who takes center stage, in stories strung together through a series of both weak and strong associations. Selections also touch on the lives of contemporaries such as educator Mary Peabody, who coined the term transcendentalism, and sculptor Harriet Hosmer. Among all the pieces, Carson's story, however, reads like an entirely different book in the same series. Similarly, the first chapter on astronomer Johannes Kepler is a bit out of place and serves only to introduce Mitchell. Moreover, Popova's attempts to imitate writers she admires with her stream-of-consciousness style is ultimately distracting and sometimes irrelevant. VERDICT Despite its flaws, this hidden gem of a work will enthrall readers seeking underrepresented voices in the history of science and literature.--Cate Schneiderman, Emerson Coll., Boston

    Copyright 2019 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from February 1, 2019
    The ever-curious thinker behind the celebrated website Brain Pickings, Popova brings her hunger for facts and zeal for biography to this exhilarating and omnivorous inquiry into the lives of geniuses who bridged the scientific and poetic. At the start of this passionate and erudite pursuit of truth and beauty, Popova describes the strange sight of a small red leaf twirling in midair, a gravity-defying mystery solved when she discerns the fine-spun spider's web holding it aloft. This image cues the reader to the structure of this many-threaded net connecting such barrier-breakers as the brilliant astronomer Maria Mitchell; radical writers Margaret Fuller, Emily Dickinson, and Rachel Carson; and the too-little-known sculptor Harriet Hosmer, most of them women-loving women. Popova presents uniquely discerning and strikingly candid interpretations of her subjects' writings, private and published, and profiles their family, lovers, and peers, including Mary Somerville, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ada Lovelace, Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Sand, Frederick Douglass, Florence Nightingale, and Lise Meitner, among many others. Popova also chronicles sustaining same-sex relationships and the furors her subjects ignited, traces hidden strands of influence, and recalibrates the underappreciated impact women have had on culture and science. Writing with an ardor for language and musing on chance, affinity, and our fear of change, Popova constructs an intricate biographical cosmos that is intellectually scintillating, artistically wondrous, and deeply affecting.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2019, American Library Association.)

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