Minds that explore the beauty of math and the logic of art

|     Margaret Wertheim     |

IN 1609 JOHANNES Kepler wrote a curious tale about a trip to the moon, hailed now as one of the first works of science fiction. Titled Somnium, or The Dream, the tale has its young astronomer protagonist encountering a race of lizard beings on the moon who have developed technology tailored to the conditions of their lunar environment, a radical attempt on Kepler’s part to envision what science might produce on an alien “world”.

Looking up at the Earth, these moon creatures believe that our orb is revolving around them, much as many of Kepler’s contemporaries believed that the sun was revolving around the Earth. Through the lens of fiction, Kepler took the bold step of trying to convey to late-Renaissance readers the scientific claim that how we see the universe is a matter of perspective. What we see is dependent on where we see from.

Maria Popova, creator of the much-admired Brain Pickings blog, begins her new book, Figuring, with a chapter about Kepler, and the resonances she sees rippling out from his surreal personal and professional life to a litany of figures in astronomy and the arts ever since.

With nearly 900,000 Twitter followers, Popova is a member of a rare pantheon of “influencers” for the brainiac crowd. Miraculously, she makes a living writing a blog about science, literature, philosophy, feminism and whatever else takes her voracious and generous fancy. Full disclosure: I’ve been a Brain Pickings supporter for years.

When I read that the subject of her first long-format book was “figuring”, my interest was piqued. Not only because I’m a fan of her site but because figuring – a multifaceted, multidisciplinary term that spans the domains of science, mathematics, the arts and human cognition – has been at the core of my own work for decades. In 2003, I started an organisation called the Institute for Figuring, whose mission is to engage audiences with the aesthetic and poetic dimensions of science and mathematics. One inspiration for this practice has been Kepler, among the foremost figurers in science.

For Popova, Kepler becomes a kind of ur-figure, a man whose multiplexed life, entwining science, aesthetics and theology, she uses to set the stage for a cast of later historical characters who also crossed disciplines and boundaries in pursuit of truth, beauty and a life well-lived.

In a book titled Figuring, it would be hard to find a more fitting muse. Kepler wrote a treatise on the shapes of snowflakes and made a mathematical conjecture about the optimal way to stack spheres, which was finally proved in 1998. Most famously, he figured out the laws of planetary motion. These cosmic rules, which include the fact that planets travel in ellipses rather than circles around the sun, overthrew 2,000 years of astronomical dogma and paved the way for Newton’s law of gravity and his subsequent cosmic synthesis.

Though Kepler isn’t nearly as famous as Newton or Copernicus, he is their equal – and arguably a more important figure than Copernicus. It was Kepler who understood first that mathematical figures hidden in the dance of the planets implied that these bodies are driven by real physical forces, thereby making him the first true astrophysicist.

Kepler is beloved by historians for the powerful mixing in his life of mathematical rigour and aesthetical play. He did nothing by halves, including defending his mother from accusations of witchcraft, a charge that he believed was precipitated by his Dream book. At the end of a long and painful process his mother was saved, but her treatment in prison weakened and finally killed her. Popova movingly reports that this led Kepler to another leap of perspectival insight: that, being female, his mother had not had the benefit of an education and was thus at the mercy of “learned” men. As Popova writes, “The difference between the fates of the sexes, Kepler suggests, is not in the heavens but in the earthly construction of gender.”

Popova’s book, which from here focusses mainly on female stories, is about the lives of some remarkable women – all undaunted thinkers – who overcame immense obstacles and “the earthly construction of gender” in their time to make astronomical discoveries, to write poetry, paint pictures and found the environmental movement. Text and Photo by The Washington Post