Maria Popova’s search for what it means to live a good life explores the connectedness of literature, science, philosophy, nature and art. Popova is a purveyor of the marginalia of life—all the bits and pieces woven into a beautiful design that spans both time and space.

In her fascinating compilation, Figuring (Pantheon Books), Popova chronicles what she’s learned from her research at her website—a “human-powered discovery engine for interestingness”—which has been included as a permanent web archive in the Library of Congress.

Figuring explores the gender-neutral intersection of science, art, nature, music, and philosophy and the interconnectedness of humanity with our world and universe.

We are continually figuring and re-figuring our reality. As we try to make meaning of our world, we must recognize the invisible connections and harmony between ideas, our environment and the thoughts and lives of people through the ages. Throughout our lives, although our beliefs and ideas evolve and our environments change, we amazingly still remain ourselves.

Scientific discoveries change our understanding of reality, each new fragment of information modifying and tweaking what we know about our place in the universe.

Popova details the lives of prominent scientists, philosophers, artists and writers, showing how their understanding of the universe and our place in it intersect. She illustrates how coincidences experienced in seemingly parallel lives provide synchronicity to the realm of human existence, and finally how we are all interconnected with each other, with nature and with the universe.

Transporting us through important scientific discoveries and artistic expressions of notable figures through the years, our journey begins with the writings of 17th century scientist Johannes Kepler. His ideas had a profound impact on the thoughts of Maria Mitchell, America’s first woman astronomer, in the 19th century.

William Herschel’s discovery of Uranus in 1781 caused Ludwig van Beethoven to consider how inhabitants of the star of Urania would think of his music, and 200 years later, his Fifth Symphony would play on the Voyager spacecraft as it traveled through space—part of the Golden Record recorded to reflect the culture of humanity—and the Voyager would glimpse the moons of Jupiter that Galileo Galilei had glimpsed 400 years earlier.

Popova details in depth the discoveries and writings of scientists, poets and pathfinders to understand and effectuate the moral conscience of humanity. She explores the work of such luminaries as Margaret Fuller (a journalist who pioneered the feminist movement), Maria Mitchell (an astronomer who blazed a trail for women in science), Harriet Hosmer (a sculptor who lead the way for women in art), astronomer Caroline Herschel, writer Virginia Woolf, poet Emily Dickinson, photographer Juliet Margaret Cameron and Rachel Carson (a marine biologist and writer).

The artistic and scientific gifts to society from these women, most gay, stemmed from their personal lives and intimate relationships. Popova explains how their work and beliefs have become a mosaic through the ages, one piece touching another, but together making a whole.

Popova gives us a detailed look into the lives of these notable women, and how peripheral figures—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Charles Darwin—affected their lives and altered their thinking and understanding of the world and humanity’s place in it.

Piecing together human truths and the remarkable details of these lives well-lived into an extraordinary mosaic of human existence, Figuring reveals our timeless interconnectedness, and the inevitable, although improbable, intersections of our lives in the vastness of the universe.

Figuring is now available for purchase.

Want more BookTrib? Sign up NOW for news and giveaways!


Photograph by Allan Amato, taken at Pioneer Works.

Maria Popova is a reader and a writer, and writes about what she reads on Brain Pickings (, which is included in the Library of Congress’s permanent digital archive of culturally valuable materials. She hosts The Universe in Versean annual celebration of science through poetry—at the interdisciplinary cultural center Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. She grew up in Bulgaria immersed in music and mathematics.