Finding by Maria Popova

Maria Popova, author of Figuring and curator of brainpickings.org

Along with my oft-mentioned experience reading about Voyager 1’s encounter with Saturn as reported in National Geographic, my desire to learn more about more things was excited by reading Carl Sagan’s Broca’s Brain. Subtitled, “Reflections On The Romance of Science”, the book is a series of essays that explore everything from the biographies of some of Sagan’s heroes, the weird attractions of pseudo-science, the promise and hope of space exploration, and the limits of science fiction. Written for any average reader, it is an invitation not only to wonder, but to discovery about the interconnectedness of awe, beauty, and understanding, and to contemplate a different perspective of our life here on Earth.

Having recently felt lost, wondering if it were possible to recapture some of that wonder I felt as a teenager when I considered the possibilities Sagan offered up, I decided to pick up my battered, yellowed copy and read it again for the first time in decades. I discovered, to my sadness, that I knew each word so well, each image Sagan’s writing brought to mind, that even after – what? 30 years? More? – this book was so ingrained inside me that I realized there was nothing left to discover. Rather than offer an fresh opportunity at wonder, it was like returning to my hometown and discovering how sad I was it was no longer the little village I knew.

Then my wife gifted me Finding for Christmas.

I subscribe to brainpickings.org, enjoying the wonderful essays its curator, Maria Popova, offers up as fresh takes on matters scientific and cultural. I had seen the book announcement she made, which is how I ended up with a copy last Wednesday. What I knew about the books content was the ad copy she offered up. That and she would cover a wide variety of topics through looking at the people whose lives embodied them.

After an introductory chapter entitled “0”, she begins with a sketch of Johannes Kepler’s struggles during the last years of his life both to complete and publish the first science fiction book (written to present the Copernican system to a non-scientific audience) and clear his mother of charges of witchcraft. That he succeeded in the latter but not the former is a tragedy of the times.

Now, Kepler received chapter-length attention in another of Carl Sagan’s works – Cosmos – and I found myself thinking, I know this story.

But, surprise!surprise!, I didn’t know this story. Not at all. For Sagan, Kepler’s story is one of the victory of patient observation overcoming the ideological blinders of a kind of Platonic Idealism that was still regnant among so much of early-modern science. Popova, however, saw in Kepler’s story – his work with Tycho Brahe, the development of the laws of planetary motion, his struggles against a legal apparatus that still considered “witchcraft” a thing to be punished – a whole. Particularly his efforts to offer the world an accessible view of the still-controversial Copernican system (Galileo’s conviction by the Church caused Kepler much angst), brought together many of the themes Popova would explore throughout the rest of her work: how chance and choice, the surrounding mores and and social rules, biography, and the inexorable pull of new ideas create individuals whose findings have changed our world for the better.

Much the rest of the book offers up a series, mostly, of women whose work may or may not have been heralded, whose lives may or may not have been forgotten, whose legacies might or might not have been distorted by those too afraid of the possibilities these women offered the world. Most of them lived in the 19th century, when the social etiquette of the “woman’s sphere” (hearth, home, raising children) was often violently enforced against many women. Many of the women lived outside the simplistic binaries of conventional gender and sexual ideologies. To live as such, to work as such, to create beauty whether in science or art or culture, in the midst of so much that would prevent them from doing so testifies to the courage these women live out in their work-lives.

Of course, not just women appear in these pages. Emerson, because of the central part he played in the life of some of these women as well as our developing sense of “American” culture, is woven throughout the chapters. Whitman, too, one of our marvelous mythologists, shows up more than occasionally. His own life and work offers further testimony to the power of following one’s muse, even if that muse is often a person of the same gender. There’s even a beautiful excurses on Carl Sagan, his partner and love Anne Druyan, and the creation of the “Golden Records” attached to the Voyager spacecraft, labors far outside simple-minded science, but rather a testament of love for humanity at a time when such was scarce.

I rest much easier now, knowing that such a work as Finding exists. There are ample opportunities for another young person to become excited about the possibilities life can offer should we make our way through the vagaries of chance and choice with a modicum of wisdom, courage, and most of all – Love. For Popova, love as portrayed through this book is not an emotion. It is, rather, an approach to life, with ourselves, with others, with the world in which we live, that bundles it all together and creates the possibility for finding . . . all that one can in the meager moments of human existence. It is love for understanding, for discovering, for offering to the world these understandings and discoveries, for those we hold most dear that drives people as different as Maria (pronounced like my daughter’s name, Moriah) Mitchell, Emily Dickinson (some of whose mysterious life is revealed in Popova’s beautiful portrait), Rachel Carson, and Lise Meitner to be the people who accomplished the things they did.

Finding is a book so desperately needed right now. It offers hope, and humanity, and most of all wonder at what may yet be possible should there still be people willing not only to find, but to passionately love finding all the ways there are to wrest meaning from the meaningless of our small blip of life.

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