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Maria Popova

Maria Popova sends out a weekly blog called The Marginalian. Her mission is to couple our science-based understandings with the arts in all sorts of vibrant ways. She has written an outstanding book called Figuring from which most of the quotes below derive, and has for several years hosted a magnificent charitable event called The Universe in Verse with excerpts here.

She writes: Be curious. Be constantly, consistently, indiscriminately curious.” And that is what I love most of all about her: the ways of the universe, the planet, and the human are probed and integrated and woven into mesmerizing prose-poetry with deep insight. 

 

In science as in romance, the unknown is disrobed sheath by sheath as fervid fantasies imagine the possibilities conquerable by knowledge—fantasies that far outstrip the reality eventually revealed as knowledge progresses.

What invigorated [astronomer] Maria Mitchell that evening, and what would drive her for the remaining decades of her life, was not the kings medal, nor the luster of worldwide recognition, but the sheer thrill of discovery—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.

Above all, Somerville possessed the defining mark of the great scientist and the great human being—the ability to hold ones opinions with firm but unfisted fingers, remaining receptive to novel theories and willing to change ones mind in light of new evidence.

Even the farthest seers can’t bend their gaze beyond their era’s horizon of possibility, but the horizon shifts with each incremental revolution as the human mind peers outward to take in nature, then turns inward to question its own givens. We sieve the world through the mesh of these certitudes, tautened by nature and culture, but every once in a while—whether by accident or conscious effort—the wire loosens and the kernel of revolution slips through… This is the paradox of transformative experience: Because our imagination is bounded by our existing templates of how the world as we know it works, we fail to anticipate the greatest transformations—the events and encounters so unmoored from the familiar that they transfigure our map of reality and propel us into a wholly novel mode of being.

Like any currency of value, the human imagination is a coin with two inseparable sides. It is our faculty of fancy that fills the disquieting gaps of the unknown with the tranquilizing certitudes of myth and superstition, that points to magic and witchcraft when common sense and reason fail to unveil causality. But that selfsame faculty is also what leads us to rise above accepted facts, above the limits of the possible established by custom and convention, and reach for new summits on the degree of courage, determined by some incalculable combination of nature, culture, and character.

Nobody was talking about this moral dimension of science. Nobody was placing a hand on humanitys shoulder and turning us away from this destructive hubris, shaking us into awareness, into humility, into wakefulness to the fragility of a miraculous world that flourished long before we trampled it with our arrogant footsteps and should continue to flourish long after we have gone.”

The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth—soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife. To utilize them for present needs while insuring their preservation for future generations requires a delicately balanced and continuing program, based on the most extensive research. Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.

Questions of meaning are a function of human life, but they are not native to the universe itself—meaning is not what we find, but what we create with the lives we live and the seeds we plant and the organizing principles according to which we sculpt our personhood.

Maria Mitchell sees not only the tragedy of Galileos truth but also its triumph: I knew of no sadder picture in the history of science than that of the old man, Galileo, worn by a long life of scientific research, weak and feeble, trembling before that tribunal whose frown was torture, and declaring that to be false which he knew to be true. And I know of no picture in the history of religion more weakly pitiable than that of the Holy Church trembling before Galileo, and denouncing him because he found in the Book of Nature truths not stated in their own Book of God — forgetting that the Book of Nature is also the Book of God. It seems to be difficult for anyone to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict.”

In the ancient Greek allegory, Theseus—the founder-king of Athens—sailed triumphantly back to the great city after slaying the mythic Minotaur on Crete. For a thousand years, his ship was maintained in the harbor of Athens as a living trophy and was sailed to Crete annually to reenact the victorious voyage. As time began to corrode the vessel, its components were replaced one by one—new planks, new oars, new sails—until no original part remained. Was it then, Plutarch asks, the same ship? There is no static, solid self. Throughout life, our habits, beliefs, and ideas evolve beyond recognition. Our physical and social environments change. Almost all of our cells are replaced. Yet we remain, to ourselves, who” “we” “are.”

It takes rare courage to recognize that feelings are the most perishable of our possessions, even more so than opinions, for an opinion — that is, a real opinion, which is qualitatively different than a fleeting impression or a borrowed stance — is arrived at via a well-reasoned argument with oneself. Not so a feeling — feelings coalesce out of the vapors that escape from the deepest groundwaters of our unreasoned and unreasonable being, and whatever rainbows they may scatter for a moment when touched with the light of another, they diffuse and evaporate just as readily, just as mysteriously.

Language is not the content of thought but the vessel into which we pour the ambivalences and contradictions of our thinking, afloat on the current of time.