The Importance of Science Literacy in the Arts, or I have a bone to pick with Billy Collins

If you are not aware of Billy Collins, he is a famous and deservedly acclaimed poet. He acted as US Poet Laureate from 2001 – 2003. He is very good at his craft. Now my bone to pick.

The other day I was introduced to a poem of his titled, “Earthling.” I won’t post all the text of the poem here because I don’t know if I legally can, but the whole text is posted other places on the internet. Straight off I want to say this is a very good poem, and the part I have a problem with is very nitpicky and doesn’t actually affect the overall message or sense of the poem. But it bugged me, and what is the internet good for if I can’t declare nitpicky wrongness about well made works of art?

“Earthling” deals with issues of body image and weight, and it does so in a clever and unique manner. Right off Collins starts by commenting on the effect of scales commonly found in planetariums which show a person how much they’d weigh on other planets. I visit the Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City fairly often because it’s fun and awesome, and as soon as the poem mentioned the scales I was hooked.

I particularly love it when science and poetry come together. The universe is easily as strange and rich and beautiful and amazing and incredible as anything the human mind can imagine. Sometimes even more so. As such, it lends itself perfectly to the imagination and invention of poetry. On the other side, poetry is perfectly situated to make people aware of the majesty of science often blurred by the math we don’t understand. This is the kind of thing you get when science and art inform each other:

Holy shit! Isn’t the universe amazing!? I don’t think you can look at that picture and not want to be a scientist and feel like a poet at the same time. They are a perfect match. And that is exactly why the poem’s fourth stanza irks me. It reads,

Imagine squatting in the wasteland
of Pluto, all five tons of you,
or wandering around Mercury
wondering what to do next with your ounce.

Did you catch that? It’s okay if you didn’t. We’re not all scientists, and that’s kind of the point. The problem here is that the poem seems to suggest that weight is directly proportional to one’s distance from the sun. In other words, on Pluto you’d weigh 10,000 pounds (1 ton = 2,000 pounds) because it’s so far from the sun, but because Mercury is so close you’d only weigh one ounce. This is so utterly false.

Weight is a measurement of the force of gravity on an object. This means higher gravity = higher weight. A quick internet search reveals Mercury’s mass to be about 38% that of Earth. This means in order to weigh one ounce on Mercury, you’d have to weigh a little less than 3 ounces on Earth. That’s less than a quarter of a pound. For anyone out there using metrics that’s about 0.08 kilograms or 80 grams. Now Pluto’s gravity is only about 6.7% that of Earth. Which means to weigh 10,000 pounds on Pluto you’d need to weigh a little more than 149,000 pounds, or about 68,000 kilograms.

Do you see the problem the poem presents?

Now, you may be saying, “But its a poem.” As in, “It’s not meant to be taken literally.” And you might be right. But here’s a counterpoint, I’m not a scientist. I’m not even that well versed in science. I got a C+ or something like it in Physics 101. But I did all that research and math in about five minutes with a quick internet search. You might say, “But this poem isn’t brand new. Maybe Billy Collins didn’t have all that information at his fingertips like we do now.” To which I say, this poem was first published in 2001. The speeds were slower, but we still had the internet back then. But maybe Billy Collins is a bit of a Luddite. Well, there are these places in pretty much every major city all over the US where you can get this information. They are called planetariums and he references them in this exact poem. And if none of those were in easy reach, there are these dusty old places called libraries. They’re basically the internet without computers. Except in 2001 most libraries had computers which connected to the internet and were free, or very cheap, and were set aside for public use.

The point here is that as a professional it’s your job to get it right, and if you have to do a little research then fucking do the research. It’s a small price to pay for science literacy and it won’t drive people like me to write crazy, nitpicky rants about fairly harmless mistakes and post them online.

I could go on about how scientifically literate language wouldn’t ruin the language or cadence of the poem. I could point out in depth the problem presented by an earlier stanza in which Collins seems to get the science right. But I’m sure if anyone is still reading this far in you just want it to end. Or maybe those who have stuck it out are only the crazies and want this to go on forever. Either way though, I’ll bring this entry to a close with a few short thoughts:

1. I don’t mean to attack Billy Collins’ character or claim he’s bad at his job. He is a terrific poet, but I feel he kind of dropped the ball here. Or maybe he wasn’t even holding this particular ball to begin with. But he should have been.

2. Science literacy is appallingly low among American adults (and probably elsewhere as well). It is especially important to get it right in venues where you can reach people who aren’t scientists and who may not have much to do with science in their day to day lives. People who read poetry in general tend to fit into this category. But there’s no reason it needs to be that way. In fact, science and literature can and should complement each other perfectly. When they do they improve each other, and the world is better off for it. And I want to live in that world.

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2 responses to “The Importance of Science Literacy in the Arts, or I have a bone to pick with Billy Collins

  1. Good observations! I like you closing paragraph. Good summation and yes for sure, that is exactly why the science is important in this medium.!!

  2. Edit: ‘your’ closing paragraph…

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