Figuring | Maria Popova

Summary of: Figuring
By: Maria Popova


Embark on a journey through the intricate web of life and the interconnectedness of people and ideas in Maria Popova’s book ‘Figuring’. Uncover the complexity of our collective story as it extends beyond mere linear progressions and branches out in numerous directions. This inspiring book delves into the interconnected nature of great achievements, artistic or scientific, and underscores the significance of relationships on personality development. Our summary will guide you through fascinating stories of historical pioneers like Maria Mitchell, Johannes Kepler, and Ada Lovelace, and the far-reaching impact of their ideas and actions.

Connected Webs of Human Existence

Our lives and collective history are not linear paths, but rather, infinitely connected webs with intersections in countless ways. Everything in existence has the same cosmic origin, tracing back to the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago. This interconnectedness extends to our ideas, advancements, and revolutions throughout various fields and time periods. By appreciating our shared cosmic roots, we can better understand the complex web binding us all together and recognize the subtle connections that spark remarkable change.

If you imagine personal and collective life stories as linear, moving only forward, you’re missing the bigger picture. Our lives and histories intertwine, branching out in countless directions and forming a vast, interconnected web. We’re shaped by the people and things around us, intersecting in ways we can’t even fathom.

The secret to understanding this complex web is recognizing our shared origin. Everything, from Einstein’s brilliant thoughts to the molecules that make up Jupiter, comes from the same cosmic source: the Big Bang, which set the stage for our universe 13.8 billion years ago. As the poet Walt Whitman beautifully penned, “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

If we are comprised of the same star stuff, why do we insist on seeing ourselves as separate entities? Instead, consider how our great ideas, advancements in art, science, and philosophy, have emerged through rich networks of interconnections. These connections often remain invisible and are hardly traced back to their origin.

Revolutionary ideas and shifts in understanding often mature in obscurity before blooming into transformative movements. As individual insights coalesce, they eventually converge into powerful torrents of change. Take, for example, the ongoing struggles for equality between races, genders, classes, and sexual orientations. Trailblazers like Maria Mitchell, the first American female astronomer, and Frederick Douglass, the early abolitionist, ignited movements that influenced countless other causes and culminated in profound societal shifts.

By appreciating our interconnected existence, we can better comprehend our place in the vast web that binds us together and appreciate the intricate connections that fuel progress and change.

The Ripple Effect of Kepler’s Discoveries

The captivating journey of Johannes Kepler’s groundbreaking work as the first astrophysicist echoes through centuries of scientific development. Against the backdrop of ignorance and superstition, Kepler championed Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the universe, making astronomical revelations that greatly influenced the fields of science. His insights into elliptical orbits and predictions of eclipses fueled later innovations, including Newton’s development of gravity and Katherine Johnson’s calculation of Apollo 11’s lunar landing trajectory. Thus, Kepler’s work not only shaped scientific trajectories but also inspired the genre of science fiction and continued to impact space exploration through the ages.

Johannes Kepler’s rich legacy as the pioneering astrophysicist of the 1600s is remarkable, both for his own achievements and the incredible impact of his discoveries on future generations. Challenging widespread ignorance and superstition, Kepler became an early believer in Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the universe and contributed groundbreaking insights to astronomy. Notably, he was the first to propose that planets orbit the sun in elliptical paths, devise a scientific method for predicting eclipses, and demonstrate the role of physical forces in determining celestial bodies’ movements.

Remarkably, Kepler’s ingenuity extended beyond astronomy, holding considerable influence on scientific developments in later centuries. His work on physical forces laid a foundation for Newton’s laws of gravity, while mathematician Katherine Johnson relied on Kepler’s discoveries to calculate the trajectory for Apollo 11’s lunar landing. Kepler’s imaginative foresight and curiosity also gave birth to one of the first science fiction stories, The Dream, in which he envisioned a lunar voyage revealing Earth’s uncertain place within the universe.

Kepler’s ideas on lunar travel and “spaceships” grappling with gravitational fields during their ascent into the weightlessness of space ultimately played a vital role in making lunar expeditions a reality. Celebrated American author Ray Bradbury beautifully captured the historical progression from Kepler’s dreams to tangible accomplishments in space exploration during a 1971 conference, stating, “It’s part of the nature of man to start with a romance and build to reality.” From Kepler’s time to the present, his indelible contributions continue to echo, shaping the ever-expanding scientific cosmos.

Trailblazing Star: Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell, a Quaker born on Nantucket Island in 1818, showed an early fascination with the cosmos. In the male-dominated field of 19th-century science, she faced numerous challenges in her pursuit of becoming an accomplished astronomer. Mitchell’s life took a pivotal turn on October 1st, 1847, when she discovered a new comet in the sky. Earlier that year, the King of Denmark had announced a prize for discovering such celestial bodies, and Maria reluctantly claimed the reward after encouragement from her father. Her victory eventually led to her becoming the first female astronomer in America, the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the first woman employed by the US government for a specialized non-domestic skill. Mitchell’s success can be attributed to her extraordinary upbringing, including supportive and educated parents, who valued gender equality, practical mathematical education tied to the seafaring culture of Nantucket, and ample time spent indoors during harsh winters, during which she cultivated her love for astronomy. Her journey serves as a reminder that individual achievements are deeply connected to family, place, and culture.

Beauty Unravelling Truth

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a 19th-century poet, believed that beauty in arts, physics, and morals were reflections of an essential truth about the universe, a concept shared by many throughout history. Galileo, famous for counteracting the geocentric model, found beauty in the truth he discovered through observing Venus. Similarly, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Maria Mitchell saw beauty as a language that communicates truth- as vital as mathematics or physics. The powerful connection between beauty and truth extends beyond just natural sciences, manifesting itself in social justice movements such as Frederick Douglass’s fight against inequality and his recognition of a new beauty in this power to inspire action.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a poet of the 19th century, proposed that different types of beauty exist: in the arts, physics, and morals. This beauty, she believed, reflects an essential truth about the universe, and many great minds throughout history have also shared this perspective.

One such person was Galileo, who discovered beauty in the truth he found through scientific exploration. Galileo debunked the geocentric model when he noticed the different phases of Venus, which could not have been illuminated from Earth’s viewpoint. This controversial truth, he believed, made Venus even more beautiful.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a 19th-century American poet, gave lectures on the connection between beauty and truth. He claimed that beauty naturally attracts curiosity and wonder, inviting individuals to investigate what lies beneath the surface. For Emerson, beauty could be likened to a language or code that transmits truth – as intrinsic to the universe as mathematics or physics.

Maria Mitchell, an astronomer mentioned previously, attended Emerson’s lectures and agreed that she sought out the beauty of the cosmos in her quest for scientific truth. She strongly believed her attraction to the cosmos’ beauty equipped her to uncover its scientific truths.

The connection between beauty and truth is also apparent in social justice movements. Frederick Douglass, a renowned abolitionist, delivered a lecture in the 1860s called “Pictures and Progress,” which detailed the relationship between art and political reform. Douglass believed that photography, an emerging medium, could help dismantle inequality by portraying reality in contrast to idealized images. This new-found beauty held the power to inspire change and propel action, another testament to the profound bond between beauty and truth.

Unraveling Historic Queer Relationships

In the 19th century, “Uranian” described people in non-heteronormative relationships, known today as queer. Some famous examples include the undefined connections between authors Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, as well as the bond between astronomer Maria Mitchell and socialite Ida Russell. These complex relationships exemplify how history brims with individuals drawn to each other in unconventional ways, blurring the boundaries of romance and friendship.

The term “Uranian” originated from the Greek goddess Aphrodite Urania and was used to describe someone of the “third sex.” This label was applied to those experiencing non-heteronormative relationships. Today, we recognize these individuals as queer. However, societal restraints have often compelled people to conceal their true selves and keep their connections ambiguous.

Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne shared a thought-provoking relationship rooted in shared admiration and intellectual affinity. After reading Hawthorne’s “Mosses from an Old Manse in the Literary World,” Melville was captivated by the older writer. Following their encounter at a literary gathering, the two authors exchanged heartfelt letters, with Melville even dedicating his novel Moby Dick to Hawthorne. While their correspondence reveals a certain romantic tension, whether their bond developed further remains uncertain.

A similar relationship bloomed between Maria Mitchell, the reserved astronomer, and the beautiful socialite Ida Russell. Although Mitchell maintained mostly platonic friendships, her connection with Ida incited possessiveness and jealousy. Mitchell’s letters portray her fascination with Ida, yet the nature of their bond remains shrouded in mystery. Conventions of the time restrained them from exhibiting a more open connection.

These examples showcase the rich history of unconventional connections between great minds. The multifaceted relationships between Melville and Hawthorne, as well as Mitchell and Russell, reveal the blurry lines between romance and friendship. Labels such as “queer” or “Uranian” cannot wholly capture the intricacies of these relationships, reminding us that human connections far surpass any definable categorizations.

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