The magic and alchemy of Maria Popova’s ‘Figuring’

Sunday, February 24, 2019 - 3:32pm

Maria Popova

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While reading Maria Popova’s “Figuring,” I was thinking a lot about the old science of alchemy, the medieval precursor to chemistry. Before we knew about atoms or different theories of electron orbitals and magnetism to explain why materials work the way they do, there was alchemy — the practice of trying to transform one substance into another. One of the most legendary and mythical alchemic practices included the process of making an ordinary substance into liquid gold.

“Figuring” isn’t quite a work of science fiction or biography. It’s also not quite poetry, not quite prose, not exactly a short story collection — and yet it’s also kind of all of these things. It’s a work of alchemy in the oldest, most classical use of the word. It’s a tapestry, woven out of the stories of various scientists and writers throughout history, connecting history, memory and personal experience to theories of astronomy, theoretical physics and ecology. Maria Popova transforms scientific logic and reason into poetry and poetry into calculus. In her hands, biography becomes liquid gold. Popova examines the lives of the people usually excluded from science writing (mostly queer women) and in doing so, crafts a narrative about the way people move through history and the way they perceive the scope of the universe. As Virginia Woolf would describe it, “Figuring” is “no longer rooted, but gold flowing.”

It would all be painfully overwrought and embarrassing if Popova wasn’t such a skilled writer and scholar, or such a deeply empathetic and human storyteller. “Figuring” doesn’t succeed in spite of its grand ambition and scope, but because of it. Clocking in at over 500 pages, “Figuring” is a dense and intricate read, but Popova’s writing is clear and simple, designed to draw people in rather than alienate. She doesn’t obfuscate for the sake of it. The complexity is earned, even necessary for the tapestry she’s creating.

The book takes a semi-biographical structure, with each chapter marking a new intersection of a different person’s life and work. Where other writers might draw a line between personal and professional lives, Popova finds such distinctions counterproductive to authentic discourse. In an early chapter about the famous 19th century astronomer Maria Mitchell, Popova imagines the woman who would go on to become the first working female astronomer, the woman who would later discover a brand new comet, at 12 years old, staring up at the sky. “I imagine this contained young woman surprising herself with a spontaneous gasp when she sees what she saw at half past 10 that first day in October in 1847,” Popova writes.

The book is full of quiet moments like this. Science to Popova is anything but clinical — it’s full of wonder, emotion and love. She approaches discovery as a reverential space where people are at their very best, describing it as, “ ... the ecstasy of having personally chipped a small fragment of knowledge from the immense monolith of the unknown, that elemental motive force of every sincere scientist.” The sincerity is key here: Popova isn’t just uninterested in cynicism she actively combats it. Each story she tells and each figure she highlights is a testament to achievement, to bravery, to the exact point where memory and future meet. If her language is flowery and poetic, it’s on purpose. She explains this with a quote from environmentalist and ecologist Rachel Carson’s journal, writing that “If there is wonder and beauty and magic … science will discover these qualities. If they are not there, science cannot create them. If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”

In another break from traditional science writing, Popova is entirely uninterested in the myth of the unencumbered lone genius. “There is no such thing as a self-made person,” she writes. It’s a breath of fresh air in the face of decades of science writing that insists on the brilliance and self-sufficiency of men, whose ideas just apparently popped out of thin air one day. When she writes about Johannes Kepler, she acknowledges that yes, he was undoubtedly one of the greatest physicists in the world, but consider how he had people who supported him — a mother who paid for his education, teachers who trained him, a family who sustained him. Popova’s thesis — that absolutely every moment, person and action is connected — extends from concepts as esoteric as the Big Bang and dark matter to ideas as seemingly simple as a young scientist’s support network. “The human mind,” Popova writes, “seems unwilling to wrap itself and its prosthetic of language around the notion of pure impartial probability. We imbue even the word chance with a constellation of subjective meanings … as serendipity’s accomplice … as free will’s counterpoint.”

Popova’s insistence on connection, on not telling linear stories but creating three dimensional spaces for narratives to live in, has few artistic precedents. Milan Kundera, maybe, but his tangents on philosophy, science and history are crafted more like asides rather than interwoven as an integral part of the story. The closest counterpart in my eyes isn’t a novelist at all, but actually the musician Joanna Newsom. Like Popova, Newsom doesn’t shy away from tackling ambitious themes like death and creation, writing sprawling narratives that transcend the chosen medium (biography and folk songs, respectively).

Newsom’s work, like Popova’s, invites a warm but complicated intimacy, pulling an intricate series of seemingly disparate narrative threads together to create art that’s demanding, yes, but ultimately beautiful. A passage from Newsom’s 2015 single “Sapokanikan” could easily serve as a summary thesis of Popova’s work: “And the records they left are cryptic at best / Lost in obsolescence / The text will not yield, nor x-ray reveal / With any fluorescence.”

It’s hard to read words like that and not feel a sense of loss over all the art and science and discovery that’s been destroyed by popular consensus and history, especially in the context of work created by women. A lot of the time, telling one story means silencing another. Holding one man up as a genius destroys the work and discoveries of all the women he learned from and collaborated with. But reading “Figuring” feels like a warm affirmation that women have always been there, at every turning point of every great discovery and achievement. No matter what happens, no matter how constricting the circumstance, the curiosity of a 12-year-old girl staring at the sky in wonder will never break.

Both Newsom and Popova seem to be asking questions like: Who do we remember? Why do we remember? Can we build a story out of a forgotten memory? In reading “Figuring,” you get the sense that the answer is an emphatic yes, as long as you don’t mistake a myth for a history, and as long as you have the time, patience and delicate touch needed to dig through the rubble and make the text yield. If you dig long enough, and if your mind is open enough, Popova argues, you might find a hidden treasure — a story everyone thought was lost forever.