Fans of Maria Popova's popular Brain Pickings website will marvel at her book-length nonfiction effort that blends two of her lifelong passions: poetry and science. Figuring offers a sweeping panorama of scientific thought and artistic development by focusing on major historical figures with the kind of encyclopedic erudition and enthusiastic insight Popova is known for. The book starts with astronomer Johannes Kepler and shifting paradigms of human understanding. It jumps to the 19th century to explore luminaries such as Emily Dickinson and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Popova connects the Transcendentalist movement with the emergence of the environmental movement in the 20th century. The latter is exemplified in the groundbreaking work of Rachel Carson, the focus of the end of the book.
Figuring is more than biography. It has an intellectually feminist tenor that not only celebrates pioneering women like Margaret Fuller and Maria Mitchell, but examines their interconnectedness and the way their achievements inspired and catalyzed entire movements. Popova often writes in a first-person lyrical style, imbuing her subjects with the intimacy of kinship, as though they're all colleagues in a grand quest to capture "all the facts and figments by which we are perpetually figuring and reconfiguring reality." It is the intersection of art and science where Popova provides her brightest illuminations, finding "the poetic truth inside the scientific fact." She successfully argues that the environmental movement hinges on such a marriage, "bringing to the cold intellectual awareness a warm feeling-tone."
Electrifying and exhilarating to read, Figuring never lets down its passionate sense of discovery. --Scott Neuffer, freelance writer and editor