BookPage Top Pick in Nonfiction, starred review, February 2019
Fans of polymath Maria Popova’s popular website, Brain Pickings, will find themselves right at home in Figuring, her audacious new work of intellectual history that focuses on the lives of a coterie of brilliant women, some well-known and others less so, whose gifts in fields like astronomy, literature, ecology and art have helped shape our world.
Popova’s goal in this book is to tease out the “invisible connections—between ideas, between disciplines, between the denizens of a particular time and place.” Time and again her nimble mind and deep intellectual curiosity make those connections plausible and compelling, like the link that bonds 19th-century astronomer Maria Mitchell, who discovered a new comet in 1847, to Vera Rubin, who became the first woman permitted to use the Palomar Observatory in the 1960s.
For Popova, subjects like literary critic Margaret Fuller, poet Emily Dickinson and sculptor Harriet Hosmer are not disembodied intellects from the past. In describing the often frustrating courses of their personal—and especially romantic—lives, Popova exposes the tension between mundane human existence and the unrelenting demands of great science and art.
Though most of Popova’s icons flourished in the 19th century, she devotes considerable attention to a deeply sympathetic portrait of marine biologist and nature writer Rachel Carson, whose 1962 bestseller, Silent Spring, decried the indiscriminate use of pesticides and helped launch the modern environmental movement. Popova especially admires the way Carson “pioneered a new aesthetic of poetic science writing, inviting the human reader to consider Earth from the nonhuman perspective.”
Popova’s own mellifluous prose enhances her discussion of even the most arcane topics. She draws extensive quotations from primary sources, allowing her subjects to speak at length in their often eloquent, always fascinating voices. Figuring invites the reader to engage with complex ideas and challenging personalities, unearthing a wealth of material for further reflection along the way.