Why are so many scientists also musicians?
Over the last ten years I’ve interviewed several people about their adventures in music and science, and I often asked them why they thought that music was a popular activity among scientists.
“Wait,” I hear you ask, “is it, though?”. Yes. Although there are not very many formal studies, all the evidence suggests that music is an exceptionally popular hobby for scientists. Both systematic studies and anecdotes point in this direction, and I have yet to find any support of the contrary. Even C.P. Snow, in his famous essay about how the sciences and arts/humanities were separate worlds, conceded that music was the exception – the one art that scientists happily embraced.
Okay, but why?
When I asked musicians/scientists why they thought this was a popular combination, they gave a bunch of different reasons. Roughly, these fall into four categories, and as you read through them you’ll probably agree more with some than with others. Before you complain about that in the comments, do read on. You’re not wrong…
Reason 1: Mathematics/patterns
Music (in particular Bach) is very mathematical, and there is a lot of physics involved in playing an instrument. Music composition follows certain rules, similar to scientific equations that must be balanced a certain way. So, maybe that is just very appealing to the kind of people who love this sort of systematic thinking.
Reason 2: Creativity/experimenting
Writing music or designing a scientific experiment are both creative endeavours. Someone who enjoys piecing together the perfect experiment might also enjoy puzzling with a music arrangement. Plus, both careers involve standing in front of an audience to share your work – one at gigs, the other at conferences and seminars.
Reason 3: A welcome distraction
This argument says that music is actually very different from doing science. After a long day in the lab or behind the computer, it’s a welcome distraction to go to rehearsal or to pluck away at an instrument at home.
Reason 4: Class/upbringing
This applies particularly to classically trained musicians: If you grew up in the kind of family that sent their kids to after school music classes, then you’re probably more likely to also have been encouraged to go to university and study science. Vice versa, if you grew up in an environment where nobody had ever seen a scientist or thought about science, you probably also didn’t get private music lessons.
As I said, none of these are great. Music is more than math. I don’t consider the counting and rules that apply to music to be in any way related to the way I think about science. Creativity might be a driving force for some musicians, but there is not a lot of creative thought involved in playing or singing from sheet music (which a lot of scientists do). And I doubt anyone went into science to satisfy their love of performing. It’s a useful skill, but not a requirement of the job. The “welcome distraction” argument holds a lot of merit, but why does that distraction have to be music? Wouldn’t intramural sports or painting classes be equally distracting? Finally, the class argument makes sense only for certain fields of music, and is itself an elitist argument that completely ignores, for example, the role that hip hop can play in science education.
So? What’s the real reason for the large numbers of musicians among scientists? It’s probably a mix of all of them! For me, it has mostly been a welcome distraction. I could never just do one thing. But I recognize that I had the opportunity to do both because I was sent to after school music lessons as a kid, and I also kind of enjoy the systematic and experimental nature of learning a new piece.
In the end, I think that the question of why there is a lot of overlap between musicians and scientists is not the most interesting question. Much more interesting would be to ask how music and science can benefit from having people interested in both areas, but I’ll leave that for another time.
Musicians & Scientists Quarterly Newsletter
Who writes science books?
The last of the SciBookChat videos went up today! Well, I might make more in the future, but this was the end of the six I had prepared. Next year will start with a completely different video, and then there is another science/book-related one in the works, but not a chat.
Anyway, for this last video of the season, I pulled twenty books off my shelves to talk a bit about the authors. The previous videos I made all emphasized that there are lots of different kinds of books related to science: books about science, books about scientists, fiction, graphic novels, etc. This video is about all the different kinds of people that write science books: scientists, science writers, writers with no science background, groups of people, bloggers.
If you like seeing what people have on their bookshelves, you will enjoy this.
Also, I drink from an erlenmeyer flask, and I say dumb things in the outro at the end (like “I don’t always know when something is a dinosaur”), so stay tuned for that.
Books shown in this video:
- Charles Darwin’s autobiography
- The Double Helix – James Watson
- The Two Cultures – CP Snow
- Silent Spring – Rachel Carson
- A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
- Microcosm – Carl Zimmer
- Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier
- The Honest Look – Jennifer Rohn
- The Science of Discworld – Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen
- The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who – Simon Guerrier and Dr Marek Kukula
- Geek Nation – Angela Saini
- How the Hippies Saved Physics – David Kaiser
- The Jazz of Physics – Stephon Alexander
- Guitar Zero – Gary Marcus
- This is Your Brain on Music – Daniel Levitin
- The Great Animal Orchestra – Bernie Krause
- Six Degrees – Duncan Watts
- Science Tales – Daryl Cunningham
- An Inconvenient Truth – Al Gore
- The Best Science Writing Online 2012
Science books vs science papers
We’re almost at the end of the SciBookChat videos! This is episode 5 of 6. After that it’s over. I filmed a very silly bonus video that’s related to today’s video (but I won’t say how!) which will go up in the new year. Otherwise, it’s just this one and episode 6 in two weeks.
In this episode I compare a passage from Carl Zimmer’s book Microcosm with the scientific article that contains the source material. Then I talk a bit about why scientific papers are written in such an uninteresting style. I mentioned the need to get all details across, but I’m not sure I quite explained why that means the papers end up with such long and dull sentences. Basically, there can be no confusion about what the authors meant, so no creative sentence structures or jokes, and they do need to include all the tiny details, which often leads to very long sentences. You’ll notice that I have a much easier time reading the passage from Zimmer’s book out loud than the section from the article. I have to pronounce complicated numbers and twice say “(Figure 2)”. I have to take breaths in the middle of ongoing sentences. It’s just not meant for reading out loud, it’s purely for conveying information!
Eeyore, Candide and Biochemistry
We’re already on episode 4 of SciBookChat Season 2! You have time to catch up, though. They’re all very short.
In most of the videos I have talked about how science and scientists are represented in books, but this episode is a little bit different. I remember, from way too long ago, one very specific question in a university textbook because it referenced Eeyore – my favourite character from Winnie-the-Pooh.
The question was about bacterial chemotaxis (how bacteria move around in response to their environment) but to make it interesting, the author had given certain bacterial mutants the characteristics of famous literary characters. He expects you to be familiar with some classics of literary fiction to solve a biochemistry question!
This time, the outtakes at the end are mostly “directors cut” extra footage, because FOR ONCE I didn’t mess up while filming. Maybe I’m learning. Or maybe Eeyore helped.
Scientists in Fiction
In today’s SciBookChat video I pick up Frankenstein again (first featured in this video) and compare him to a more modern scientist in a more recent book. What has changed?
The saddest cake story
Remember when I made a DNA cake that spelled “CAKE”? Shortly after that did the rounds on the internet, people spotted mistakes. The helix was turned in the wrong direction, and I had failed to stay on the same strand in the twist so the colours were wrong in every other segment.
Did it make the cake less fun or delicious? Not really, but I still felt dumb for introducing those errors. I really should know better. I have a PhD in baking — I mean, biochemistry.
So, when I recently had an opportunity to bake a cake for scientists again, I thought this would be a good moment to redo it, and fix the errors.
At work we drew names of the contestants of Great British Bake Off, and the week after “your” contestant left, you’d bring in something you baked. The name I had drawn was Rav, who was known for liking vegan baking, so I thought that’d be a great excuse to also use my favourite vegan cake recipe.
When Rav left the show a few weeks ago, it was my turn to bake, so I set aside several hours of my weekend to prepare everything. I finished the final icing details on Sunday morning, and, as planned, made a correct DNA helix this time. The twelve base pairs encode the four amino acids with the one letter codes “C-A-K-E”, the helix turns the correct way, and I followed the strands in the twists. Everything was perfect!
Except, a few hours after I finished, I wasn’t feeling very well. I started getting a stomach ache that only got worse and worse. At midnight I ended up going to the hospital to find out what was wrong, and around 2AM I was told I had gastroenteritis. I had to stay home from work until I was all better, and, worst of all, I was not allowed to prepare food for other people!
My beautiful cake! Not only could I not go to work myself, but I wouldn’t be allowed to serve the cake to ANYONE! I had to throw it out.
I actually left it in the fridge for a full week until I could bear to part with it (and until I could deal with the concept of “food” and “cake” in general.)
Goodbye, beautiful DNA cake.
Science books about people
For the second episode of this season of SciBookChat I mused a bit on a particular type of science books. I showed three books that in my opinion are more about people than they are about science – Geek Nation, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and How the Hippies Saved Physics.
I like all of these books, but, as I mention in the video, I haven’t really learned any science from them. And that’s okay, because the main story in all of these books is a more personal story. Geek Nation is about scientists in India, and the role that science plays in the country. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about the Lacks family, outdated medical practices, race relations, and the surprising presence of Henrietta Lacks in many modern cell biology labs. How the Hippies Saved Physics is about the influence of 1970s counterculture on the field of (quantum) physics. In all three books, the main subject is people. That they happen to have something to do with science is what makes the books science books, but the science is only secondary.
Watch the video for the full discussion – and to find out what I think about physicists!
What kind of book is a science book? – SciBookChat
What is a science book? Is it a textbook? A popular science book? Are kids books about science more kids books or science books? What do you expect to find in the science section of a bookstore?
The first episode of the second season of SciBookChat went online this morning, and it’s about exactly these questions. In the video, we go on a little tour of Foyles bookstore in London, to compare the arts, travel, music, food and science sections of the store. Of course, nothing can quite compare with the music section, but you have to watch the video to find out why THAT is so special.
As this video shows, there are lots of different types of science books. But perhaps not all of them are what you picture when you think of “science books”. Because SciBookChat is a series about all the ways that science occurs in books, I interpret “science books” in a very, very broad sense.
The next episode of SciBookChat goes up on October 20, and will be about books about scientists (rather than books about science). You can subscribe directly on YouTube if you want to make sure you catch that.
Busy, but organised
I haven’t done a general update in forever! I’ve been busy (but organised) lately, so this is as good a time as ever for a catch-up blog post. Here’s what I’ve been up to.
One of the main things I’ve been busy with at work is the Transforming Genetic Medicine Initiative (TGMI). This is a Wellcome Trust-funded project involving a group of clinicians and scientists who want to make sure that genetics becomes a streamlined part of medicine. We launched a website earlier this year, and since June we’ve been posting weekly blog posts about topics related to genetic medicine. We also have a mailing list and a Twitter account, so if you’re at all interested in genetic medicine, and want to help us think about it, you now know where to go.
My YouTube channel can be a bit chaotic, with random vaguely science-themed videos mixed with travel videos, but I’m doing something structured with it now. I’ll post a new video every two weeks from next week until the end of the year, in which I discuss science in books. I did a few of these videos last year, and the style is pretty much the same, but this year I have a title screen and a jingle made just for me (by Sam) and a regular schedule, so it’s all a lot more organised. Subscribe, as they say on YouTube.
The latest Doctor Who Fan Orchestra video dropped a few weeks ago. This time, we tackled the theme music from the episodes with Donna Noble as companion, so it goes from upbeat jazzy to emotional “saving the world” pieces. As with all DWFO videos, everyone recorded their own parts at home but the final compilation is a proper symphony.
My regular orchestras, where people rehearse all in the same moment in time and space (how quaint), start again next month, so violin-playing will move in high gear, with concerts in November and December. If you’re in London, make sure to follow me on Twitter to find out when they are, because I’ll likely not mention them on the blog again.
There should also be a new issue of the MusiSci newsletter out in November. Some of the archives are now online, so you can have a look at old issues. If you like getting quarterly updates about the overlapping worlds of scientists and musicians, you can sign up now and get the November one when it comes out.
Lou moved to the USA, but we managed to arrange a virtual MySciCareer meeting. In the past few weeks, we posted two new career stories on the site every week. Follow us on Twitter or check out the site to explore careers for people with science degrees.
In between all these other things I’ve also been writing. I’m working on a few projects I don’t want to talk about yet because they might not all materialise, but I had an article about Pokemon Go and wildlife education on BOLD Blog recently, and I have a different science/pop culture piece coming out elsewhere before the end of the year.
It might not sound like it, because I don’t talk about it much, but writing has actually been taking up most of my spare time. A bit more than music and much more than my online side projects. It just isn’t as visible.
Despite all these things, I’m managing to keep on top of everything and not go crazy – yet. I would love to be able to tell you that I have all these apps and tools that keep me on top of everything, but to be honest those things just add to the stress for me.
I’ve always functioned best with physical to do lists on paper. Crossing off what I’ve done makes me feel much more accomplished than tapping a screen. I usually try apps for a bit and then lose interest and motivation. They don’t capture my attention in the way I need a to-do list to connect with me.
The thing that has stuck with me is bullet journal, which is basically a structured way of keeping to-do lists on paper. I’ve been using this method since July, and it’s perfect for me. My time management and activities are unstructured by nature, and don’t fit nicely into boxes, so a method where I can just make lists as long or short as I need them to be (and can doodle and take random notes and make spreads for all my side projects) is ideal.
I’m also trying to be super effective with my time, because my schedule is so full. I wrote this post on the train to and from work yesterday, and edited/uploaded it in a pub while waiting for other people. When it was done, I could tick off a few items in my bullet journal and feel good about myself.
So I’m busy, but organised. The busy-ness will last until the end of the year at least. I can only hope my newly found organisation skills keep up.
Photo: One of my favourite photos I took this summer.
SciBookChat season 2: science in books
Let’s chat about books and science again!
Last year I made a few videos about science in books. They weren’t book reviews, but they were just me chatting about things that were vaguely related to both science and books. I did one about fake and parody science books (like Giraffes? Giraffes!), one about science in zines, and one about the role that some books have played in our perception of science and scientists.
There were only those three videos to start with, but I now filmed a whole second season, of six more videos (seven, including the intro video).
In the video above I talk about what SciBookChat is, and what kind of other stuff is on my YouTube channel. If you can stand the gesturing and eye-rolling and the sound of my voice, you can subscribe to the YouTube channel directly by clicking this link.
What is it about?
Topics in Season 2 of SciBookChat will include:
- What exactly is a “science book”? Are they all books that explain science, or is the category broader than that?
- Using literature references to explain scientific concepts
- Books about scientists, rather than about science itself
- …and more!
When? Where? How?
Season 2 will be a lot like season 1, but I’m going to put some more effort into making sure people know what the videos are, and how to find them.
For you, the readers, I’ll write a blog post to go with each video. They will have the video embedded, and written summary of what’s discussed in there. If it sounds interesting, you can then decide to watch the video. The videos are all short, and can mostly be consumed with audio only if that’s what you prefer. So all of you podcast fans who don’t like looking at things can just have the video open in another tab and listen. They’re each only a few minutes long.
For the YouTube audience, I’m using the #booktube tag on social media, and encouraging people to subscribe to the channel. I’ll be using a regular upload schedule, with a new video going up every other Thursday starting on October 6.
I’ll also have my own theme music, composed by Sam Jenkins just for SciBookChat, so the videos will be worth watching just for the tunes!