(Re)Education Maria Popova Style

Maria Popova is indeed a phenomenon. If you haven’t heard of her and her “labour of love” BrainPickings, go grab a read. Six years after it started as a newsletter to a handful of friends, in 2012 the US Library of Congress included BrainPickings in its Web Archive program.

Or pick up her book Figuring, 552 pages, including the bibliography. Wrapped in a dust jacket the colour of her signature cheerful yellow, her first book feels like a re(education). It’s an ambitious undertaking that pulls from her hard work of more than a decade. This is a book that fills in holes and cements in anchors.

Research on curiosity shows we need to first know there is a curiosity gap. This requires having knowledge anchors already in place. These anchors, on which new scaffolding is built, also help construct an expanding database.

“The Library of Congress Web Archive selects, preserves, and provides access to archived web content selected by subject experts from across the Library, so that it will be available for researchers today and in the future.” [source]

My own elementary and high school education, while covering large tracts of history, seemed more like disparate units, rather than a cohesive whole. (Pre-reconciliation efforts, lessons on First Nations are also spotty or missing.) Part of the appeal of Maria Popova’s writing is that she does an impressive job of relating people within contexts of time, passion, life work, and society. I wonder how students would respond to this approach in school.

Figuring explores the complexities of love and the human search for truth and meaning through the interconnected lives of several historical figures across four centuries.” From Johannes Kepler to Rachel Carson. In just the first two chapters, Maria Popova includes over 50 names on a timeline that reaches three centuries into the past and three centuries forward into the future from her starting point in 1617.

Rather than peppering the book with dates, which may trigger bad memories for some, she places them strategically and relationally. Like a puzzle coming together to form a bigger picture of humanity.

Here’s an example of how it now sits in my brain.

100 years after Maria Mitchell became the first Professor of Astronomy at Vassar in 1865, telling her first class to “mingle the starlight with your lives”, Vassar grad Vera Rubin became the first woman to use the Palomar Observatory. She also confirmed dark matter.

How does Maria Mitchell relate back to Johannes Kepler?

One of her models was Caroline Herschel, the first professional female astronomer who died nine weeks before Maria Mitchell discovered a new comet in 1847, winning a reward from the King of Denmark. Formally known as C/1847 T1, this is “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”, almost “Signor de Vico’s Comet.” Caroline was the sister of William Herschel, the inaugural president of Royal Astronomical Society who discovered Uranus, named after Urania, one of the spirits in Somnium or The Dream. This was a story about moon travel, the first science fiction, as a way for Johannes Kepler to show that our heliocentric model is incorrect. William Herschel was also the greatest scientist to William Mitchell, Maria’s father.

On Urania, Beethoven had written this in the margin of a composition – “What will they think of my music on the star of Urania?” Centuries later Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and their team created the Golden Record that was played on the Voyager whose mission was to explore the solar system. Included was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and a piece Laurie Spiegel composed based on one of Johannes Kepler’s works, Harmony of the World. Refinements of Johannes Kepler’s three laws allowed for space travel. Its twin Voyager 2 would go on to explore Uranus.

An info-dense narrative about human discourse on philosophy, science, history, and literature may only delight certain personalities. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, especially in our social media age. Perhaps it is then remarkable that Maria Popova and BrainPickings have such a large following.

Or perhaps it is precisely this seeming shortage of time and attention that compels us toward her stylistic and erudite sharings. We don’t all have the time, patience, or inclination to dig into the volumes on and by historical figures. Unless we studied them in school or another context, we are also missing anchors. We won’t have the curiosity gap to close, because we don’t know what we don’t know. Even if these are philosophers, poets, activists, inventors, and scientists who have made an indelible mark on our lives and how we can find meaning, connection, and fulfillment.

Certainly what we can pick up from her writing can catalyze conversations to engage wider groups of people and deepen our relationships. And while Figuring may not excite all personalities, her writing in some way may call more deeply.

Maria Popova reminds us how interconnected we all are. Not only do we live in a web, regardless of what age, nation, culture, or religion whose costume we have don, the heart within beats the same for all. To remember with gratitude the contributions those before us have made in the world and our lives in such interesting ways is to experience awe and reverence for our fellow human beings, and the greater mystery we are part of. Even as the imperfect beings in imperfect times, then as now.

Given how male-centric most of our education has been, her focus on shining light on women and their contributions is a welcoming way to help address the imbalance today. Women not as footnotes or side stories.

Reading about Quakers such as Maria Mitchell’s father also points to a richer and more compassionate history than the violent and intolerant one we may have been taught. He founded with his cousin Walter Folger, also Benjamin Franklin’s cousin, Nantucket Philosophical Institute which admitted women by end of 1831. He later founded his own private school for “fifty scholars, half of each sex.” Being part of the Underground Rail, their family also boycotted “slave-picked cotton”.

Activism does not have to be loud or aggressive. We each can do what we can. We are all a node of consciousness in the matrix. If each of us chooses to steward something we are passionate about, change happens. Looking for inspiration? Check out Figuring.


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