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Unexpected connections emerge in a lyrical meditation on the lives and loves of pioneering women in science

Figuring

Maria Popova
Pantheon
2019
592 pp.
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The year was 1834, and William Whewell was impressed: Mary Somerville’s grasp of celestial mechanics placed her on the forefront of science. But what to call an interdisciplinary “man of science” who was a woman? The word Whewell ultimately coined was “scientist.”

Figuring is a love letter to these scientists of the past, women whose lives have all too often been eclipsed. Starting from the premise that understanding the universe is the work not only of science but of stories, Popova explores how their studies were never entirely separate from affairs of the heart. As she explores the “personal relativity” of women’s relations through their own often most private words—gleaning passages from countless sources—we come to see entirely new constellations.

Whether in describing the tribulations of Kepler’s astrologer mother as the source of his Dream and arguments for Copernicanism or following the “computer of Venus,” Maria Mitchell—who advised her first class of women astronomers at Vassar to “[m]ingle the starlight with your lives”—Popova evokes worlds upon worlds of coincidence and contingence, showing that we grasp nature best when we relate to one another. Weaving in the stories of sculptors, poets, and feminists, she traces these women’s complex emotional lives and the “elective affinities” of their love.

Popova’s passion for immersion both in the personal relations and the “free-flowing exchange of words” between women that served as “the electric current that charged the women’s emancipation movement” is clear. But most striking are her repeated encounters with a world of science and feminism replete with romantic triangles, queer relations, and even polyamory, outing an era that was anything but straightlaced.

The result is a densely interwoven and recursive set of tales that reveals the complex dialectics of chance and choice in individual lives and in scientific discovery—“all the facts and figments by which we are perpetually figuring and reconfiguring reality.” Offering profound meditations on “how poetry and science have long fomented one another’s imagination,” Figuring is a kind of “novel-poem” that treats women’s words as wissenschaft and alliteration as an aid to analysis.

This free-flowing making of meaning results in sometimes striking and unexpectedly resonant juxtapositions that span time and discipline: Maria Mitchell leads us to Ida Russell and Vera Rubin; Caroline Herschel to Oliver Sacks; Margaret Fuller to Richard Feynman; and even Florence, Italy, to Florence Nightingale.

This curious game of telephone is sometimes dizzying in its scope. But what else would bring together the love letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, with roots Popova intuits in the work of Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli? Or Carson’s critique of DDT and the prospect of CRISPR-edited mosquitoes?

Such inspirational if sometimes head-scratching syzygies allow Popova to show how poets use words “not merely to denote and describe the world but to evoke and wrest meaning via symbolic logic.” In revealing how an Emily Dickinson poem that invokes Kepler’s “music of the heavenly spheres” also simultaneously taps into Pythagorean maxims about refraining from beans, for example—leading Popova to the conclusion that “one of humanity’s greatest poets was not above making a fart joke”—she weaves deep insights with seemingly absurd hot air. But she uncovers such deeper meanings that poetic license is easily granted.

Dickinson’s “two perfect stanzas” of a total solar eclipse, for example, which were “possibly the world’s first poem about a solar eclipse, and certainly the world’s most splendid,” ultimately, in the hands of Mabel Loomis Todd, helped fund an astronomical observatory at Amherst. And it was Todd’s own popular treatise on eclipses that brought solar science to even larger masses. When we invoke more contemporary figures such as Carl Sagan—“the poet laureate of the cosmos,” Popova suggests—we are inescapably invoking Dickinson’s own cosmic perspective, when she had a century earlier “projected herself to the faraway vantage point of the Voyagers.”

“There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives,” Popova proposes, and so rather than one woman’s story eclipsing another, her tales resonate because they endlessly orbit one another. Intertwining the most human with the celestial sublime, she shows how “separate spheres” can beautifully give way to endless transfiguration. There is grandeur and beauty in this view of science.

If, as Thoreau once wrote, “Every poet has trembled on the verge of science,” few have so fulsomely explored how science and poetry, love and learning, and affairs of the heart intertwine in a way that, even after more than 500 pages, leaves one trembling for more. But like other affairs of the heart, the joys of reading Popova’s prose are perhaps best experienced for oneself. Go figure.

About the author

The reviewer is secretary of the History of Science Society and in the Department of History, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131, USA.