Book Summary: Figuring by Maria Popova

Quick Summary: According to Figuring, our lives reverberate in countless ways long after we are gone. In these short stories, we will follow that reverberation by tracing the paths of various historical figures and learning the surprising ways in which their lives intersect.

How far our deeds and words will resonate, we can never know for sure. Which first astrophysicist would have guessed in 1603 that his allegory about a trip to the moon would become the basis for science fiction?

But that’s exactly what happened with Johannes Kepler’s story. When Maria Mitchell decided to become America’s first female astronomer, she had no idea that she would become a role model for women in science.

You don’t have to read the whole book if you don’t have time. This summary will provide you with an overview of everything you can learn from this book.

Without further ado, let’s get started.

Lesson 1: Kepler shaped the future with his science fiction and scientific discoveries

The life and accomplishments of Johannes Kepler, the first astronomer in history, are remarkable in themselves. Also remarkable is the way in which his 16th-century work has been linked to that of other scientists and authors in subsequent centuries.

The astronomer Johannes Kepler made discoveries that influenced the development of many branches of science. He was an early proponent of Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the universe, which ran counter to the conventional wisdom of his time.

Through his efforts, insightful contributions to astronomy became possible. His contributions include the first scientific method for predicting eclipses, the first demonstration that physical forces move the planets and stars through the night sky in predictable orbits, and the first indication that the planets orbit the Sun in an elliptical, rather than circular, fashion.

Newton adopted Kepler’s thesis about the physical force and sixty years later built Newtonian gravity on its foundations. And then, centuries later, the mathematician Katherine Johnson used Kepler’s laws. She used them for the calculations that led to the successful Apollo 11 moon landing.

Considering that the moon landing didn’t occur until decades later, it’s amazing that Kepler predicted many details in his “science fiction.”

In his short story “The Dream,” an aspiring astronomer travels to the moon and encounters a race of natives who believe that the earth revolves around the moon.

This story is an allegory designed to subtly remind the earthlings that their fixed ideas about the earth’s place in the cosmos may not be tenable.

Before the genre was even named, Kepler wrote one of the earliest examples of science fiction. While he correctly predicted that a “spaceship” would have to account for Earth’s gravity at launch, he also correctly predicted that it would need very little propulsion once it reached the weightless “ether” of space.

Kepler’s idea of a mission to the moon started the ball rolling that eventually led to its realization. The American writer Ray Bradbury summed up this age-old process when he said at a conference on space exploration in 1971: “It’s the nature of man to begin with romance and build on reality.”

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Lesson 2: Maria Mitchell became America’s first female astronomer due to her unique upbringing and surroundings

Born in 1818 on Nantucket Island into a Quaker family, Maria Mitchell was a brilliant child fascinated by the cosmos. In the 1800s, however, science was still dominated by men. On his way to becoming a respected astronomer, Mitchell encountered fierce opposition.

But on the evening of October 1, 1847, she made a discovery that would change her life. That evening, looking through her trusty telescope, she spotted a new comet, a tiny, glowing speck moving across the sky.

She was an expert on the universe, but she had never seen this dazzling new arrival. Earlier that year, the Danish king, one of Europe’s foremost patrons of science, had offered a reward for the discovery of a new comet. The winner was to receive a gold medal worth 20 ducats – a fortune at the time.

Mitchell was reluctant to send her discovery to the Harvard Observatory, which was offering the medal, but her father urged her to do so. Bad weather prevented her letter from arriving in time, and an astronomer in Europe had already seen the comet. Thank God the authorities were kind enough to let Maria win.

Later, Maria made history as the first female astronomer in the United States, the first woman admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the first woman hired by the government for a non-household job (as a “human calculator” for navigation).

Mitchell owes much of her success to her upbringing and her family. She was fortunate to be raised by a loving and unusually present father and mother. Her mother was exceptionally well-read, and her father was always on hand to encourage her intellectual ambitions.

All of this was atypical for the time. Her father was forward-thinking enough not to give his less gifted sons special treatment, but traditional enough to treat them as intellectual equals. Moreover, the Quakers placed great emphasis on ensuring that both boys and girls received an equal education.

Finally, on seafaring Nantucket, mathematics was not just an abstract concept, but a practical necessity for sailors and whalers crossing the Atlantic. The long, dark winters provided ample opportunity for Mary to pursue her interest in astronomy while she was indoors.

Mitchell’s upbringing and her environment remind us that no one is truly “self-made,” but that we are all influenced by a unique combination of genes, environment, and upbringing.

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Lesson 3: Truth and beauty have been associated throughout history by many geniuses

The 19th century poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning recognised a variety of aesthetic domains, including the traditional fine arts, science, and ethics. They all reflected a fundamental reality of the cosmos. Throughout history, many people have held this view.

Even Galileo appreciated the aesthetic value of the truths he discovered in his scientific research. He debunked the prevailing geocentric model of the universe, according to which the Earth is at the centre of the cosmos because God created it that way.

With his careful observation of the phases of Venus, he provided the first evidence against the then prevailing unscientific dogma. If the common doctrine had been correct, Venus would be on the side facing away from the sun, so that we wouldn’t be able to see it from Earth.

And yet, through Galileo’s telescope, the planet Venus shone brightly in the night sky. And because it stood for such a strong, controversial truth, he thought it made the Earth even more beautiful.

The American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (who lived in the 19th century) also wrote about the relationship between aesthetics and truthfulness. In his lectures, he argued that aesthetics evoke an innate sense of wonder and curiosity that leads us to search for answers to what lies beneath the surface.

He believed that aesthetics was a universal language, a code for communicating truth that was as fundamental to the cosmos as arithmetic and physics.

In the previous blink, we learned that Maria Mitchell was a fan of Emerson and his lectures. She wondered if the beauty of the universe wasn’t the real reason she was drawn to its scientific exploration.

The struggle for social justice is another area where beauty and truth meet. Case in point: the famous anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass. In a lecture titled Pictures and Progress, delivered in the 1860s, he spoke about the role of figurative art in bringing about social and political change.

In it, Douglass argued that photography, a new medium at the time, would help eliminate inequality by allowing people to show the “real” as opposed to the ideal. The gap between our flawed reality and the one we aspire to could be made tangible through photography. Douglass recognised in this potency a unique elegance that could motivate us to action.

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Lesson 4: In history, the truth of people’s amorous natures has always been more complex than the labels they are given

People referred to as “irregular,” non-heteronormative relationships in the 19th century were often called “Uranians.” Originally, Uranians meant “third sex,” as the term was derived from the name of the Greek goddess Aphrodite Urania, who was said to have been formed from the testicles of the god Uranus. Today we know that this term generally refers to a queer community.

Unfortunately, many people throughout history have had to hide their true selves from society, and sometimes even from themselves, because the social norms of centuries ago did not allow it. Relationships that were never fully realized or defy easy definition abound in history.

These feelings were shared by writers Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville fell in love with Hawthorne after reading his 1850 collection of short stories, Mosses from an Old Manse in the Literary World. In his book review, Melville said the following about the author, “A man of a deep and noble nature has taken hold of me…” Melville had met Hawthorne at a recent literary gathering and was immediately taken with both the author’s work and himself.

When Melville dedicated his novel Moby Dick to Hawthorne, the elder author was moved beyond measure. However, as Melville’s correspondence with Hawthorne became more passionate, the two went downhill. His passion was too much for the rather reserved Hawthorne, who withdrew as a result.

What transpired between the two men can be called a romance, and their correspondence has been preserved for posterity, but we will never know if the constraints of time and convention prevented them from going further.

Maria Mitchell had an indescribable relationship with the social beauty Ida Russell. Mitchell was very reserved, and it seemed that she kept her personal relationships to a minimum. In contrast, her friendship with the stunning and witty Ida Russell was unique.

Mitchell’s possessiveness and jealousy toward Ida were atypical given her many female friends. The letters between Mitchell and Ida reveal an undeniable attraction on both sides, but beyond that, the events that transpired between the two are a mystery. The nature of their relationship was unclear, as was the case with many people of the time, as societal norms prevented an open relationship.

Today, we refer to the motivations of Melville, Hawthorne, and Mitchell as strange. Throughout human history, many of the greatest thinkers have shared these kinds of enigmatic, inspiring, and extraordinary relationships. Intimacy is a complex and nuanced subject that cannot be reduced to a single label like “queer” or “Ukrainian.”

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