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An exploration of the surprising connections between historical figures

By Maria Popova
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Figuring by Maria Popova

Figuring (2019) traces the intricate web that connects important figures from human history, from German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and inventor Nikola Tesla to America’s first female astronomer Maria Mitchell and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. These blinks pick up the tapestry of these different lives, trace the impact that they had on the course of history, and reveal the secret driving force that unites them all.

Key idea 1 of 9

Human fates are interwoven, across time and space, in an ever-expanding web.

If you picture your own life story, and those of others, as straight lines, moving only forwards, then you have the wrong idea. In reality, our lives and collective histories branch out in myriad different directions, in an infinitely connected web. We intersect with other people and things in unimaginable ways.

One reason we overlook this complex web is that we fail to recall how we’re all fundamentally connected. Everything that exists is made of the same star stuff. Everything. From every idea that Albert Einstein had to the preservatives that keep his brain floating in its jar. From every cell of Galileo’s pointing finger to the molecules of gas and dust that form the rings of Jupiter. From the opening notes of Beethoven’s fifth symphony to the sound of a voice you love. All of it exploded into being with the Big Bang, from a single source, 13.8 billion years ago.

If we know this essential truth, why do we think of ourselves as completely distinct, separate, atomised? For instance, some of us become so focused on personal development that we forget that we are also shaped in important ways by other people in our lives. Indeed, the poet Walt Whitman knew how connected we are when he wrote: “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

Our great ideas and advancements, in art, science and philosophy, didn’t evolve separately, but through great webs of connectedness. Many of these connections are invisible and barely traced. 

And many of the ideas that bloomed into revolutions or shifts of understanding first developed in obscurity, gestating over many ages, between different disciplines. Collecting like individual drops of water along different channels, they eventually made a great torrent. 

This is best exemplified by the struggles for equality between races, genders, classes, and sexualities. Pioneers like the first American astronomer Maria Mitchell or early abolitionist Frederick Douglass sparked movements that, over the course of history, contributed to great change, affecting causes far beyond their own.

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