Figuring cover

Figuring - Book Summary

An exploration of the surprising connections between historical figures

Duration: 30:18
Release Date: May 10, 2024
Book Author: Maria Popova
Categories: Religion & Spirituality, Motivation & Inspiration
Duration: 30:18
Release Date: May 10, 2024
Book Author: Maria Popova
Categories: Religion & Spirituality, Motivation & Inspiration

In this episode of 20 Minute Books, we dive into the pages of "Figuring" by Maria Popova. Published in 2019, this captivating book weaves together the lives and legacies of some of history's most enigmatic figures, including German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the groundbreaking American astronomer Maria Mitchell, and the visionary inventor Nikola Tesla, among others. Popova explores how these individuals, from varied disciplines, interconnect through their relentless pursuit of knowledge and truth, thereby molding the course of human history.

Maria Popova, the author of "Figuring", is renowned for her profound insights on culture, philosophy, and the arts, derived from her acclaimed blog, Brain Pickings. Her expertise as a writer has been enriched through collaborations with major publications like The Atlantic and The New York Times, and through her role as an MIT “Futures of Entertainment” Fellow.

"Figuring" will appeal especially to readers who have a boundless curiosity about the world, blending scientific inquiry with poetic sensibility. It enriches poets who are fascinated by scientific discoveries and scientists who appreciate poetic reflections on their work. This book is a treasure trove for anyone eager to understand how the lives of remarkable individuals echo through our understanding of the world. Join us, as we unravel the historical and emotional threads that connect some of the brightest minds in human history.

Unveiling connections across centuries

Can one imagine the far-reaching impact of a simple celestial observation or a quaint story written in the solitude of study? Would Johannes Kepler, the pioneering mind behind astrophysical concepts, ever have foreseen his 1603 tale of a moon voyage nurturing the seedlings of modern science fiction? And could Maria Mitchell, the first recognized woman astronomer in America, have envisioned her stargazing pursuits inspiring generations of women in science?

Indeed, the ripples of our actions can stretch beyond the imaginable, touching lives and molding futures long after we're gone. This exploration takes us on a journey through the lives of several remarkable historical figures, revealing how their stories are intricately linked in unexpected and fascinating ways.

Through this narrative, you'll discover:

- How Johannes Kepler's early science fiction imaginings indirectly previewed aspects of the Apollo missions over three centuries later;

- The way Maria Mitchell's passion for astronomy propelled her to national acclaim and established her as a beacon for women in science;

- The astonishing achievements of Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron's daughter, whose prowess in mathematics enabled her to conceptualize early computing principles.

Join us as we traverse time and impact, knitting together the legacy of minds whose visions shaped the fabric of their future and ours.

Exploring the intricate tapestry of human connections

Think of your life and those around you not as straight, isolated paths, but as a complex, intertwining network where every interaction has potential ripple effects across the cosmos. Imagine a vast, intricate web—expansive and ever-growing—where each of our stories diverge and converge in unexpected ways.

Often, we miss the beauty of this interconnectedness because we forget a profound truth: everything in the universe, from the grandest galaxy to the smallest particle, originated from the same stardust. Consider that the thoughts that once raced through Albert Einstein's mind and the chemicals preserving his brain are made of elements birthed by the stars. Likewise, the atoms in Galileo’s fingertip as he pointed to the heavens, or the musical notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, share the same cosmic beginnings. Our origins, from about 13.8 billion years ago, stem from one singular event — the Big Bang.

In knowing this, it seems almost paradoxical that we often view ourselves as separate entities. Many of us obsess over personal achievements, forgetting that our development is deeply influenced by those we meet along the way. The poet Walt Whitman captured this sentiment perfectly when he stated, "every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

This isn't only about philosophical musings; it's a reflection of how creativity and innovation are rarely the products of isolation. Ideas in science, art, and philosophy flourish not in seclusion, but through a rich lattice of interaction and mutual influence. These links might be invisible or subtle, scarcely noticeable as they slowly build momentum, much like streams that merge to form an immense river.

The impacts of such interconnectedness can be seen in the strides toward equality across different facets of society — be it race, gender, class, or sexual orientation. Historical figures like Maria Mitchell, America's pioneering astronomer, or Frederick Douglass, a formidable abolitionist, might have initially appeared as mere singular drops in an immense ocean. Yet, their actions sparked waves of change, influencing movements that continue to reshape our world.

As we navigate through this narrative, we delve deeper into this web of human fate, uncovering the untold ways in which our lives are bound together, crafting a future woven from the threads of our collective past.

Johannes Kepler: From celestial mechanics to celestial fantasies

Johannes Kepler, often celebrated as the world's first astrophysicist, not only fashioned a significant slice of scientific history with his groundbreaking work in astronomy but also sketched early blueprints that connected the realms of science fiction and factual science. His life's work, rooted deeply in the 17th century, would resonate through the corridors of time, influencing both scientific thought and literary imagination in profound ways.

In an era clouded by misunderstanding and superstition, Kepler stood firmly with the few proponents of Copernicus’s heliocentric model, advocating for a universe centered not on Earth but the sun. By introducing revolutionary ideas—like the elliptical orbits of planets and the conceptual foundation for gravitational theory—Kepler reshaped our understanding of the cosmos. His theories on planetary motion and eclipse prediction paved the way for later scientific advancements. Notably, sixty years after Kepler's contributions, Isaac Newton would refine these hypotheses, establishing the bedrock of classical physics through his laws of gravity.

Kepler’s intellectual legacy stretched far beyond his own time. Centuries later, mathematician Katherine Johnson would utilize Kepler's laws to calculate pivotal flight trajectories for NASA's Apollo 11 mission, which famously placed the first humans on the Moon.

But Kepler's influence was not confined to the rigor of scientific academia. He also ventured into the then-nascent territory of science fiction with his narrative, "The Dream." In this allegorical tale, a young astronomer's lunar journey reveals a civilization that perceives Earth as a satellite to their world—challenging the anthropocentric views of Kepler’s contemporaries and echoing the relative views in modern astrophysics.

One of the most prescient elements of Kepler's fiction was his conceptualization of space travel dynamics. He envisioned a "spaceship" that would initially struggle against Earth's gravitational pull, only to find liberation in the minimal resistance of outer space—a notion that wouldn’t be realized until centuries later in actual spaceflight.

Kepler's pioneering spirit in blending scientific facts with creative fiction provided a fertile ground for future explorations, both in technology and storytelling. As Ray Bradbury, a luminary of American literature, aptly remarked at a space exploration conference in 1971, humanity often progresses from the fantastical dreams of its thinkers to the tangible realities shaped by its doers. Kepler's imaginative and scientific endeavors exemplify this timeless interplay between dream and reality, illustrating the profound connections across disciplines that propel human understanding forward.

Maria Mitchell: Pioneering the stars through a unique confluence of circumstances

Maria Mitchell's journey to becoming America's first female astronomer illustrates a remarkable interplay of personal passion, supportive upbringing, and historical context. Born in 1818 on the island of Nantucket, within a Quaker family that valued equality and education, Mitchell's environment was as rich in intellectual stimulation as it was in maritime traditions.

In the 1800s, the field of science was predominantly male-dominated. For a woman to make her mark, especially in a rigorous discipline like astronomy, was nothing short of revolutionary. Yet, Mitchell's upbringing equipped her uniquely for this challenge. Her family was not only supportive but intellectually engaging. Her father, a great influence and mentor, treated her as an equal, nurturing her curiosity about the universe.

On a decisive night of October 1, 1847, Mitchell’s life changed forever when she discovered a comet—a "new" celestial body streaking the night sky. Recognizing the significance of her find, she was initially hesitant to contest for the recognition it deserved. However, with encouragement from her father, she reported her discovery to the Harvard Observatory, which was connected with the prestigious prize announced by the King of Denmark for discovering new comets. Despite a nerve-racking delay caused by bad weather, and another claimant from Europe, Mitchell was eventually awarded the gold medal, establishing her breakthrough in a largely male preserve.

Her achievements did not stop with the comet's discovery. She ascended to become the first female member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and later the first woman employed by the U.S government for a specialized skill, serving as a "human calculator" for nautical almanacs.

Mitchell's story is deeply intertwined with her Nantucket roots—a place where seafaring was the lifeblood, and mathematical skills were vital for navigation. The long winters on the island also provided ample time for indoor pursuits like studying stars, which further fanned her astronomical interest.

Recognizing Maria Mitchell's achievements involves acknowledging how her personal talents met the unique circumstances of her upbringing. Her story confirms that while individual brilliance is crucial, the cultural, familial, and educational contexts that shape this brilliance are equally significant. Through her story, we see not just a tale of personal triumph, but a case study in how communities and families can foster groundbreaking achievements in science by nurturing potential and breaking traditional barriers.

The timeless dialogue between beauty and truth

Across different eras and disciplines, the intriguing alliance between beauty and truth has consistently captivated minds from various fields. From poets to physicists, the notion that beauty extends far beyond aesthetic appeal into the realms of existential and empirical truth has been a recurring theme.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the renowned 19th-century poet, was an ardent believer in the multifaceted nature of beauty. She argued that beauty manifested not just in arts but was equally present in the structured realms of physics and the ethical dimensions of morals. According to her, these forms of beauty were not mere distractions but profound reflections of universal truths.

This philosophy wasn't restricted to the realms of poetry. Galileo, a pivotal figure in scientific revolution, also subscribed to the idea that there is an inherent beauty in the truth unveiled through scientific discovery. Challenging the then-dominant geocentric model, Galileo's observations of Venus through his telescope revealed celestial phases that contradicted existing beliefs about the cosmos. To Galileo, Venus wasn’t just a luminous object in the dark void of space; it was a beautiful affirmation of a heliocentric truth, standing in defiance of misguided dogmas.

The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson further enriched this discourse by likening beauty to a language—a mystical code through which the universe communicates its underlying truths. In his lectures, he described beauty as an agent of attraction, pulling the curious and the insightful towards deeper understanding, much like the mysterious allure of an unsolved equation or a compelling theory.

The influence of these ideas was evident in the life and work of Maria Mitchell, the pioneering astronomer introduced earlier. Her attendance at Emerson’s lectures might explain part of her fascination with the cosmos—not just as a domain of scientific inquiry but as a canvas of celestial beauty that beckoned her to unravel its truths.

Moreover, the concept of beauty bonded with truth transcends the contemplative and enters the arena of societal change. Frederick Douglass, an iconic figure in the abolitionist movement, explored this in his lecture "Pictures and Progress," where he mused on the potential of photography to influence social justice. Douglass saw photography as a tool that could expose societal disparities starkly, contrasting real-life conditions with idealized perceptions. This capability to portray reality in an unvarnished light held a unique beauty for Douglass—one that possessed the transformative power to provoke action and instigate reform.

Thus, through the ages, the perception of beauty as an ally of truth has not only enriched our understanding of the universe but has also empowered voices championing social equity, creating a profound legacy that continues to inspire and challenge.

The complexity of love beyond labels

The rich tapestry of human relationships and affections, especially those that diverge from societal norms, has historically been a complex and often concealed aspect of many lives. The term "Uranian," coined in the 19th century, attempted to describe these non-heteronormative relationships, borrowing from the mythology of Aphrodite Urania who originated from Uranus. This identifier aimed to define what we would now broadly acknowledge as queer identities.

Despite such classifications, the real emotional landscapes of many historical figures remain shrouded in mystery and speculation, largely due to the restrictive societal norms of their times. The relationships and personal connections they forged often existed in a realm of affectionate intensity that defied simple definitions and public validation.

Consider the literary bond between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, which blossomed after Melville's passionate engagement with Hawthorne's "Mosses from an Old Manse in the Literary World." Melville's admiration was palpable; he openly expressed his profound connection to Hawthorne's spirit and intellect. This mutual affinity intensified when Melville dedicated his magnum opus, "Moby Dick," to Hawthorne. However, as Melville’s letters grew increasingly intense, the more reserved Hawthorne began to distance himself. Their correspondence hints at a deeply affectionate relationship, perhaps a form of romance framed by the constraints of their era, leaving modern readers to wonder about the full extent of their connection.

Similarly enigmatic was the relationship between Maria Mitchell and Ida Russell. Mitchell, known for her reserved demeanor and professional focus as a pioneering astronomer, displayed an uncharacteristic emotional possessiveness and jealousy towards Russell, a renowned socialite who captivated many in her circle. This deviation from Mitchell's usual temperament suggests a depth of feeling that was rare in her other friendships. The nature of their bond, as expressed through Mitchell’s personal letters, reveals an attraction that defies easy categorization, wrapped in the discretion necessitated by their time.

These stories highlight a broader truth about human relationships: they are multifaceted and often transcend the labels we try to impose on them. Whether termed Uranian, queer, or another label, these connections embody a spectrum of emotional and intellectual intimacies that enrich our understanding of historical figures as deeply complex individuals. In exploring these past relationships, we are reminded that the essence of human connections often lies beyond the reach of simple definitions, resonating in the nuanced interplay of hearts and minds throughout history.

Ada Lovelace: Bridging the realms of poetry and computation

Ada Lovelace, born in 1815 to the Romantic poet Lord Byron and the mathematically gifted Baroness Annabella Milbanke, epitomized the fusion of literary and scientific genius. Her life story is as much a testament to her intellectual prowess as it is a narrative of inheriting and transcending the distinct legacies of her parents.

The marriage of Byron and Milbanke was short-lived, marred by Byron's scandalous affair with his half-sister. Following the fallout, Byron exiled himself to Italy and then to Greece, leaving young Ada in England under the sole care of her mother. Baroness Milbanke, perhaps in reaction to Byron's tumultuous poetic lifestyle, steered Ada away from the arts and towards the more structured disciplines of science and mathematics.

Despite her mother's efforts, Ada's inherent attraction to the poetic — an indelible part of her personality inherited from her father — remained vibrant. As a defiant teenager, she once challenged her mother’s restrictions on her intellectual pursuits, seeking not just philosophical poetry but "poetical philosophy, poetical science." This blend of creative and analytical thinking became the bedrock of her later achievements.

Ada's penchant for science and her poetic lineage converged spectacularly when she met Charles Babbage, an eccentric mathematician known for his work on the Analytical Engine, considered the precursor to modern computers. At the age of 19, Ada started attending Babbage's salons, and it wasn't long before their intellectual partnership flourished into collaboration on the Analytical Engine.

Lovelace's most notable contribution came when she translated and annotated a paper by an Italian military engineer on Babbage’s engine. Her extensive annotations, which are now recognized as the first computer algorithm, were more than mere translation; they were an inspired vision of what computing could become. At 27, she had envisioned a potential for computing beyond mere calculation — a foresight imbued with the poetic imagination she could never leave behind.

Ada Lovelace's story is a profound reminder of the seamless continuity between art and science. Her work foreshadowed the modern age, where technology and creativity often converge, and it underscored her unique position as both a mathematician and a poet's daughter. Her legacy is not simply in her contributions to computing but also in her ability to inhabit and integrate the worlds of her parents — translating the poetic into the mathematical and the imaginative into the innovative.

Goethe's Dual Legacy: Where Poetry Meets Science

Renowned globally for his literary prowess, German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe nurtured a lesser-known yet profound interest in scientific endeavors. His intellectual journey is a compelling illustration of the marriage between scientific curiosity and imaginative creativity, a theme recurrent in the lives of several historical figures we've explored.

Goethe's scientific engagements, though not as celebrated as his literary contributions, left a distinctive mark on the world. One of his more unexpected legacies involves the modern nomenclature for clouds. This journey started with Luke Howard, an amateur meteorologist, who proposed Latin names for cloud types to ensure universal scientific communication, moving away from more region-specific English terms. Facing severe criticism from the British scientific community, Howard found an unexpected ally in Goethe.

Goethe, who was deeply embedded in scientific studies alongside his literary work, championed Howard's cause. He argued that clouds, universal phenomena not bound by any one nation, should bear names that transcend linguistic barriers. Integrating Howard's nomenclature into his body of work, Goethe wrote poems that utilized these Latin classifications—cumulus, stratus, and cirrus—thereby aiding in their acceptance and popularization. Thanks to Goethe's influential support, these names are still in use globally, underscoring a unique instance where literature directly facilitated scientific standardization.

Yet, for all his enthusiasm for science, Goethe's prowess in this field did not mirror his literary genius. His role was akin to that of an enthusiastic amateur—passionate yet not groundbreaking. His impact on science was less about direct contributions and more about how he encouraged a broader, more integrated view of science and aesthetics.

A striking anecdote illustrating Goethe's lasting influence involves the inventor Nikola Tesla. Inspired by a passage from Goethe's "Faust," Tesla conceived the revolutionary design of the self-starting alternating current motor—a moment of clarity that occurred as he witnessed a breathtaking sunset. This moment underscores how Goethe’s ideas transcended his immediate context, inspiring innovations in completely unrelated fields.

Throughout his life, Goethe lamented the artificial separation of science and poetry, advocating for a fusion of both to reach a higher understanding. In his essays, he envisioned a world where these two domains could reunite as "friends" at a superior intellectual plane, emphasizing the potential for cross-disciplinary enrichment.

Thus, Goethe's legacy in science, much like his literary heritage, champions the cause of intellectual synthesis—the blending of reason and wonder, analysis and creativity, serving as a testament to the enduring value of interdisciplinary exploration.

The sentimental journey of a rational mind: Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman, renowned for his brilliance in physics and his unwavering rationality, unexpectedly revealed a more sentimental aspect through a long-concealed personal letter. This discovery, made by biographer James Gleick while researching for a Feynman biography in 1988, challenges the public image of Feynman. To understand the profound influence of this letter, we must delve into Feynman’s youthful romance and its lifelong impact on him.

In his teens, Feynman met and fell deeply in love with Arline, a girl who shared his intense curiosity about the world, albeit from a philosophical standpoint. This bond envisioned a future filled with happiness and intellectual companionship. However, their dreams were abruptly threatened when Arline developed symptoms of a severe and enigmatic illness, which included fevers and a noticeable lump on her neck. Despite temporary recoveries, her condition was diagnosed as a rare and terminal form of tuberculosis. Facing the inevitability of Arline’s fate, the couple chose to marry in a spontaneous and heartfelt ceremony, committed to cherishing their remaining time together.

While Feynman’s career escalated, leading him to a significant role in the Manhattan Project during World War II, Arline's health deteriorated. Despite her illness, she maintained her connection with Feynman through coded love letters from the sanatorium—a testament to their enduring love and intellectual companionship.

Arline’s death on June 16, 1945, marked a profound turning point for Feynman. Overcome by grief, he penned a letter to Arline posthumously, a gesture that starkly contrasted his empirical persona. This letter, unearthed decades later, exposed a deeply emotional and vulnerable side of Feynman. Addressing Arline as if she could still hear him, he expressed a poignant longing for her presence, describing other relationships as mere “ashes” in comparison to what they had shared.

This poignant episode in Feynman's life illustrates that even those who staunchly advocate for rationalism are not immune to the mystical and existential ponderings that often accompany human experiences of love and loss. Feynman’s letter not only highlights the complex interplay between head and heart but also serves as a reminder that behind scientific rigor often lies a deeply human story of love, loss, and the search for meaning beyond the tangible. Like many other great minds we’ve explored, Feynman was ultimately “dumbstruck by life’s mystery,” navigating the intricate landscape where profound love and the pursuit of scientific truth intersect.

Connecting threads across time and disciplines

Throughout history, numerous influential figures have woven a complex and interconnected legacy that transcends the boundaries of time, space, and discipline. These legacies, marked by surprising junctions and unforeseen trajectories, have often served as catalysts for significant cultural shifts, scientific breakthroughs, and revolutionary innovations.

From celestial explorers like Johannes Kepler and Maria Mitchell to literary giants such as Goethe, and from visionary scientists like Ada Lovelace to profound thinkers such as Richard Feynman, these individuals shared a common pursuit of beauty and truth. Whether through the lens of a telescope, the stroke of a pen, or the intricate workings of an early computer, each contributed uniquely to the tapestry of human achievement.

This narrative showcases not only the achievements but also the unexpected connections among these varied minds. Their collective stories highlight a universal drive to understand and explain the world, to push the boundaries of current knowledge, and to imagine what might be possible. Each in their own way demonstrated that the pursuit of knowledge and beauty isn't confined to a single discipline but is a richly interwoven endeavor that spans the spectrum of human experience.

Figuring Quotes by Maria Popova

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