“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 what survives the shipwrecks of judgement and chance.”
The title of the book Figuring refers to Popova’s ideas about:
‘figuring and reconfiguring of 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 …’
Her book ranges widely across philosophical ideas and scientific notions, starting with mathematician Johannes Kepler (1571-1630).
Kepler would, says the author ‘quarry the marble out of which classical physics would be sculpted’.
Kepler had investigated and proposed the claim (made 50 years earlier by Copernicus) that the Earth moves around the sun, even before Galileo Galilei plucked up the courage to say that he had himself thought along these lines but kept silent to avoid being charged with heresy. Eventually he could keep silent no longer. Kepler, Before Newton, also conceived the notion of a gravitational force which directed the movement of the planets.
The book moves on to American Journalist and women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) and the life of astronomer and mathematician Maria Mitchell (1818-1889). Mitchell rose to be the first female Professor of Astronomy at Vassar. Maria Mitchell knew that the surest route to empowerment of women was through education.
We are taken by the author on a journey through the life and poems of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) and on to the groundbreaking work of environmental scientist, Rachel Carson (1907-1964) with others in between.
Among the questions Popova asks, and seeks to answer through the examination of the lives of the (mostly women) in this book. What are the building blocks of character, of contentment, of lasting achievement?
This last is a question which courses like blood through the veins of the book because, if it is axiomatic that we should seek to achieve greatness in our chosen field, whether science, literature, art, then what part does societal recognition play? The lives of the women in this book were lived out against a background of the utter disbelief of those particular societies in which they lived concerning the suitability of women even to partake in education, let alone to make world changing scientific or artistic discoveries. Yet this is exactly what they did.
While it is impossible to know for certain every life chance or turn that led to these women becoming exactly who they did, they all shared the fortune of coming from families enlightened as to the education of its daughters. They all shared a need to work, and like every human soul, a need for love which came in all sorts of shapes and guises.
Popova writes about women who were major achievers in their fields but this is not just an account of certain lives however remarkable they may be. What Figuring does is the same thing that Popova’s blog Brain Pickings (www.brainpickings.org) does, it makes beautiful connections between art and life, between sinew and spirit, soul, chance and choice. In her inimitable way she makes the reader not just wish to know more but insist on knowing more, to relish the ‘down the rabbit-hole’ effect of research, to want to delve further, find more tunnels.
The last ‘life’ to be covered in Figuring is that of Rachel Carson (1907-1964), author of Silent Spring.
Carson was a biologist, nature writer and oceanographer, an ecologist before the term was even known. Although ailing and nearing the end of her life at the time of writing Silent Spring this was the book that it fell to her to write simply because she was the best qualified to do the job, and in so doing she founded an ecological movement which today is more desperately needed than ever.
Carson was informed by the establishment of the time that despite her meticulously evidenced research on the damage caused by the use of DDTs in crop sprays and pesticides in decimating bird and insect populations, there was no ‘evidence’ of permanent damage. In other words, it was thought by some in a gung-ho way that populations might be decimated but, hey, they would recover. They didn’t. My life had stood a loaded gun’ as the poet Emily Dickinson wrote.
The conflation of such gung-ho attitudes towards chemically manufactured carcinogens, in pursuit of profit, and the disparagement by those engaged in such activities of individuals who challenge them, has given rise to the environmental activism we see today. It is shocking how little attitudes have changed since Carson wrote in the 60s and how much there is still to achieve. For example in the last few days it has been reported in the Guardian that the peaceful environmental group Extinction Rebellion was listed by the Metropolitan Police on its Prevent list of radicalisation, alongside neo-Nazi groups, meaning that to be concerned about ecological destruction and the death of species, is considered extreme even though we ourselves are part of the ecology we destroy.
Carson would no doubt take little pleasure in – but equally might not be surprised by narratives being pursued today by powerful corporates and those who serve their interests regarding the damage done to human tissue by ultra-fine particles in the air that we breathe.
Governments cannot be trusted with environmental crises. Although DDT’s may be banned in certain countries our legal and regulatory systems lag behind desecration and mayhem caused by chemical pollutants in our air and water systems, particularly from vehicle and aviation exhaust fumes.