Dillard's scientific errors

Jeffrey Fronza, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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Dillard is a writer with a keen sense of detail and a vivid imagination. She draws from numerous fields, from history to biology to literature, in her meditation on the "Big Questions". Having taken a number of basic science courses, however, I noticed a number of inaccuracies in her presentation of scientific facts. For instance, she poetizes the Loop of Henle, a structure in the kidney, by writing "the delicate oxbow of tissue, looping down so far, and then up, is really a peripheral extravagence, which is why I remembered it, and a beautiful one, like a meander in the creek" (134). Now this all sounds very nice, and allows for a wonderful comparison with the creek, but unfortunately it is scientifically wrong. The Loop of Henle serves a very important function in the kidney. It allows water to filter out, thus concentrating the urine. Without this loop we would lose too much water in our urine. Now this is a rather minor point, but she makes even more dubious comparison in other parts of her book.

Here is the word from a subatomic physicist: "Everything that has already happened is particles, everything in the future is waves." Let me twist his meaning. Here it comes. The particles are broken; the waves are translucent, laving, roiling with beauty like sharks. The present is the wave that explodes over my head, flinging the air with particles at the height of its breathless unroll; it is the live water and light that bears from undisclosed sources the freshest news, renewed and renewing, world without end. [102-3]

Again, this is a wonderful verb flourish, but it bears absolutely no relation to the physicist's statement. She seems to justify her extravagence by basing it on the hard facts of science, but she gets these facts all wrong. She seems perfectly at ease with "twisting" meaning to fit her own aims, but in light of these inaccurracies can the reader trust her? She might be a wonderful writer and still lack the reader's trust, which is vitally important if she is to convince him of her metaphysical opinions later in the book. How well do you think Dillard did at bringing various disciplines to bear on Tinker Creek? Does she construct a plausible narrative?

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Last modified 3 December 2006