The ‘Iron Angels’ of the Poet’s Nature

Iron AngelsIron Angels by Geoff Landis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What is science poetry? Take a sonnet by Petrarch, keep almost all of the words, but change the object from Laura to Science. Or, take any given Shakespeare sonnet that harps on marriage. Again, keep most of the words. Change only the object of the poet’s affection. Science poetry, as I’ve encountered it recently, is like any other poetry. The only difference is the wellspring of metaphor.

Geoff Landis may be best known in literary circles as the Hugo and Nebula award-winning author of Mars Crossing. In the scientific community he is a highly accomplished researcher at NASA. But along the way he has written poetry. Or, as he quips on his website, “OK, I admit it: I also sometimes commit acts of poetry…”

The published result is a wonderful short volume of verse titled Iron Angels. Similar to Landis’s career, this collection straddles science and sci-fi. Some of the early poems, like “Earthrise, Viewed from Meridiani, Sol 687”, invoke distinctly Sagan-esque motifs, like Earth as a pale blue dot. The poetry links life together, both human generations and alien life separated by lightyears of space. In the age of celebrity scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson, such cosmic effusing counts as proverbial. And if these were the only poems Iron Angels contained, it would be a heartfelt but tiresome collection.

Iron Angels clears the launch tower, as it were, with a clever and crisply written piece titled “Christmas (When We All Get Time Machines).” Hint, if such a thing ever happens it may prove most unfortunate for the holiday. The poem gave me a chuckle even as it took me aback and made me truly think about the consequences of cheating Time.

Within the book’s trim 55 pages, there is at least one shape poem, a smattering of haiku, a bit of rhyming, but mostly free verse—accessible and engrossing. At least a couple of poems blur whatever boundary might exist between flash fiction and poetry. I did not love every piece, nor find them all masterful. Yet, everywhere the verse smacked of deliberateness, of orchestrated word choice that does with text what talented painters do with oil on canvas.

Many of the poems are thoroughly grounded in everyday human experience. It is probably outright wrong to call it all science poetry. Some of the verse, including a few amusing cat poems (at least as amusing as anything on YouTube), seems like it may have been written as a diversion after a long day at the lab. Some of it is wonderfully romantic. And some of it, like “Snapshots,” is wonderfully haunting:

“I wonder, sometimes, about those people in the picture / so like us, and yet so strange. / If they were not trapped in the slippery squares of paper…”

I read contemporary poetry with suspicion. Is it truly poetry? Or is it just lazy prose slapped on the page with forced enjambments to appear poetic? Iron Angels is poetry. Moreover, Landis’s collection avoids the trap of being esoteric, intelligible only to scientists. These angels, steeped both in science and humanity, are worth invoking … and reading for enjoyment.

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Don’t Nibble: Science is Food for Thought

Seven out of ten people on Facebook are malnourished. Intellectually that is. It turns out many folks comment on science stories after only reading the headline. Headlines may be delicious but they are not nourishing. So … Yum, yum! Food for thought. I dare you to go further!

Comment on That Shared Science Story – and Maybe Read it, Too!

Andrew C. Revkin, writer of The New York Times’ Dot Earth opinion blog, wrote the above piece. Did you make it past the headline? How carefully do you consider science coverage before commenting on it? Let me know … if you actually read the article.

Poetry Leaves a ‘Permanent Smirk’

Science poetry is a happening thing … or at least a thing that happens.

smirk-selfieRecently a poet writing under a pseudonym asked me to read and review their collection of science-themed poetry. I was glad to do so. The collection, by Truth A. Teale, is titled Permanent Smirk and is available as an Amazon Kindle eBook. I really liked it. The critical exercise has me wondering what other science poetry is out there. How is this subgenre fairing? 

Expect more posts on this topic in the future. In the meantime, please read my review to see what I thought of Ms. Teale’s collection. And speaking as an openly biased reader, I recommend giving this collection a try.

HAL 9000 meets Harlequin Romance

According to NPR Weekend Edition, Google is enhancing its Artificial Intelligence Engine’s tone of voice with help from romance novels. Here is a link to the audio:

Google Feeds Its AI Engine Formulaic Romance…

Let us hope this is not where the tutelage of artificial intelligence ends. Intriguing though, to contemplate if things would have gone better in 2001: A Space Odyssey if Dave Bowman had tried reading HAL some risqué prose.

Is Curiosity Rover Condemned?


In describing the rough terrain Mars Curiosity Rover is currently riding over, Dr. Nilton Renno of the University of Michigan recently employed the word “unforgiving.” As a co-investigator on the Mars Phoenix Lander and a Professor of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, he spoke from a place of authority.

Unforgiving, though. Has the planet Mars placed the Curiosity Rover under condemnation for attempting to scale Mount Sharp in Gale Crater?

Dr. Nilton Renno fields questions on Mars from an audience at Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, following a screening of The Martian

Of course a scientist calling a planet’s terrain unforgiving is a scientist using a figurative expression to convey sense of place—specifically Mars, a distant exotic locale that neither he nor his audience will ever personally visit. Unforgiving seems a great word. In addition to coming close to the topographical reality of Mount Sharp, it taps into my sense of emotion.

Having at times in life felt myself wanting forgiveness, the impression becomes acute. If the Curiosity Rover is crossing unforgiving terrain, the surface must be rough and difficult. There must be no easy way forward or back. Perhaps the terrain is taking a toll on the rover’s components. Am I suddenly feeling empathy for a machine?

Here then is the curious side effect of calling physical terrain unforgiving. I sit here feeling emotion for a machine. I’m like Han Solo staring longingly at the Millennium Falcon. Is this a good thing? I believe so. Dr. Renno’s word choice succeeds on a pedagogical level, taking me closer to the literal reality of Mars by way of figurative language.

To learn more about Curiosity’s unforgiving location, visit NASA JPL.

Science as an Avenue for Pleasure

“To penetrate into the heart of the thing—even a little thing, a blade of grass, as Walt Whitman said—is to experience a kind of exhilaration that, it may be, only human beings of all the beings on this planet can feel. We are an intelligent species and the use of our intelligence quite properly gives us pleasure. In this respect the brain is like a muscle. When we think well, we feel good. Understanding is a kind of ecstasy.”

Carl Sagan, Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, from Chapter 2