Science songs – why so silly?
Why are songs about science often so silly?
You know what I mean. They try to fit long words in the lyrics for the sake of scientific accuracy, they’re reductionist and literal, and they’re often parodies of existing songs with the words changed to be about science.
Some of them are really popular. These days, Tom Lehrer’s Elements song is probably better known than the original words to Gilbert and Sullivan’s tune. Science comedy is gaining in popularity, and silly songs about science seem to have an audience on YouTube as well.
But why are they always silly? Or: Why are there so few serious songs about science?
One reason is that to many people, “science” is abstract and impersonal. It’s not considered a topic for an emotional song. There are far more songs about technology (like email or phones) because technology is integrated in people’s day-to-day lives. Arcade Fire’s We Used To Wait is a good example. Science, on the other hand, is seen as impersonal: it’s taught in school as discovery of facts that are completely independent of the person observing them.
When the topic of songs is “scientists” rather than “science”, the tone shifts to something less silly and less literal. Scientists in music are often symbolic for determination and stubbornness. In The Flaming Lips’ Race for the Prize, two scientists are “locked in heated battle”, “so determined” to find a cure “if it kills them”. In Coldplay’s The Scientist, probably the most well-known (but not the best) scientist song, the metaphorical scientist character understands science better than love. Here, science is the opposite of emotion.
Songs about science itself, rather than songs about fictional scientists, are often cheery folksy tunes or parodies of pop songs in which words like “photosynthesis” and “deoxyribose” have to be worked into the meter, and where scientific accuracy is more important than creating something that’s pleasant to listen to. Metaphors are rare. Everything is literal. In a science song you can’t just say things like “science is the opposite of emotion”, which I wrote in the paragraph above, and expect people to know that this is not really true, and that it was shorthand for “people sometimes use science as a metaphor to describe a lack of emotion”. People might misunderstand. Everything in a science song has to be accurate, and that’s what often makes it silly. It’s contrived.
Science songs have such a reputation for silliness that people joke about it. Country singer Brad Paisley quipped at A Prairie Home Companion that he wrote an album about geology. The audience immediately laughed. He then proceeded to sing about the geological features of Tennessee, still to a lot of laughter. When the song ends, host Garrison Keillor says “That’s about as good as a song about geology gets”. Music about science is inherently silly because who wants to listen to a bunch of facts set to music?
Some science songs are deliberate educational tools, where being factual is important, but many others are not. YouTube is full of science parodies. They’re not all trying to teach you something – they’re having fun. People watch the videos, because they know the original song and the scientific references, and they want to laugh along with the creators.
It’s basically fan art, and in that sense, it’s very similar to filk.
Probably the only music genre to have gotten its name through a typo, filk is music created by science fiction fans, about the science fiction universes and characters they love. It originated at sci-fi conventions where people brought instruments and sang songs based on known melodies.
Change the topic from science fiction to science, and you end up with songs like Lab Slave, Bad Project, Defining Gravity or The Element Song. Some are recorded in a lab, others are professional productions, but all of these examples are songs by people who like science and sing about it.
Like filk, such science songs are meant to be shared among people who get it. It creates a sense of community to be able to share a song about a thing you know and like with other people who know what you’re singing about. We laugh in recognition because we know what it’s like to work in a lab, or how many long and difficult names are in the periodic table of elements. There’s more about the social aspect of “filking” on Wikipedia, and you can easily see how a lot of the same community ideas apply to these sorts of science songs.
So, if you consider “science songs” to be these literal and factual songs that fit the filk phenotype, then they are indeed often humourous, parodying existing songs, and full of inside jokes and jargon. But there are other songs that allude to science. They aren’t always literal, they might be about people instead of facts, they only vaguely hint at scientific concepts, and they are original compositions rather than parodies.Nevertheless, they are inspired by science, but they aren’t meant to be funny.
A few months ago, The Guardian published a list of some great songs inspired by science. The list includes Joanna Newsom, Kate Bush, David Bowie, Ella Fitzgerald, The Cure, Josh Ritter, the aforementioned Flaming Lips, and many others. You might have heard some of these songs before, and just never considered that you were listening to a song about science.
So yes, lots of science songs are silly, but maybe that’s because we only consider the silly ones to be “science songs”, and we think of the others as just regular music.
The Musisci List
In the music and science survey earlier this year, I asked people to “name a musisci”. More than half of the participants answered this question, and several people gave more than one answer. Some were obvious jokes (Olivia “Newton” John; Obama), others I had to check, and some wrote out their answer as a phrase instead of a name, so it took me a while to fully process. I interpreted “that guy from Queen” as “Brian May”, combined “Girl Talk” and “Gregg Gillis” as one answer, merged all the “Richard Feynman” and “Feynman” answers, split “The Brians May and Cox” into their two respective answers, fixed a few spelling mistakes, and capitalized all names.
I wasn’t able to extract a name out of every answer. I suspect “the guy who invented the Korg” might refer to Bob Moog, but I didn’t count that. I also didn’t know who “my high school biology teacher” referred to, and I even had to discount a mention of the musisci family “Herschel” because I didn’t want to blindly assume it was about William and not his sister Caroline.
Other than the Herschels, the list contains another musical sibling pair (Helen and Kat Arney), one fictional musisci (Sherlock Holmes), and four or five of the names on the list are people who took the survey themselves, but NONE of them listed themselves as musisci example!
There are still some names in this list that not everyone would consider musisci, but I asked this question to see how people would interpret the phrase, and most people used the definition of a scientist who also makes music, or a musician with strong scientific influences.
The full list is below, with the number of times that this person or band was mentioned. I noticed there are far more men than women in the list, with Helen Arney and Vi Hart the only two women that were named four or more times. Björk and Emeli Sandé were probably the most famous women on the list, but not a lot of people are aware of their science connections. Björk has collaborated with scientists on a science-themed album; Sandé has a degree in neuroscience. I don’t think there are that many more men than women who do both music and science, but the ones who are known for this (“The brians May and Cox”, Einstein) are mostly men, and dominated the list.
|Leonardo da Vinci||12|
|Johann Sebastian Bach||9|
|Hermann von Helmholtz||2|
|A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada||1|
|Claire L. Evans||1|
|Joel Thomas Zimmerman||1|
|Johan Gotthardt Olsen||1|
|King Henry 8th||1|
|Loren L. Zachary||1|
|Marcus du Sautoy||1|
|Nicole Frances Galtie||1|
|Robert W Levenson||1|
|The Band 311||1|
Cell biology text books and The Beatles
When the third edition of the popular text book Molecular Biology of the Cell (MBOC) came out in 1994, the author photo on the back cover showed the six authors walking across the famous crosswalk near the Abbey Road studios in North-West London. Like many tourists who visit the spot, they imitated The Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover.
“We were crossing Abbey Road, because the place where we work is right around the corner from the Beatles recording studio there”, explained Bruce Alberts in a talk in 2012.
The Abbey Road author photo on the third edition of MBOC started a twenty-year tradition of Beatles album cover parodies on cell biology textbooks by Bruce Alberts and his co-authors. I found most (perhaps even all) of them and put them side by side with the corresponding Beatles album below.
When you move the sliders to compare the author photos to the Beatles albums, you can see that what started as a casual funny photo, simply referencing the location where they wrote the book, eventually turned into elaborate photo shoots to get as close as possible to the album covers.
Crossing Abbey Road, from right (front) to left: Bruce Alberts, Dennis Bray, Julian Lewis, Martin Raff, Keith Roberts, and James Watson. Martin Raff plays the Paul McCartney part, and crosses barefoot. (Don’t worry: just like McCartney, he’s still alive!)
Three years after this third edition of Molecular Biology of the Cell, all of the authors, plus Peter Walter, produced a different textbook: Essential Cell Biology. Having done the Abbey Road thing already, they went for a different Beatles album, and posed in the side-lit style of With The Beatles (released in the US as Meet The Beatles).
A fourth edition of Molecular Biology of the Cell came out in 2002, and by now the authors were dedicated to the cause. This time, Alberts, Lewis, Raff, Roberts and Walter wrote the book together with Alexander Johnson, and their author photo is by far the best one. They went full-out this time for a Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band homage. The celebrity collage in the background of the original was replaced with a collage of famous scientists and some political figures. How many can you recognize?
The second edition of Essential Cell Biology came out in 2003, but I can’t find any information online about an author photo in this edition. There’s nothing shown on the back cover on the Amazon preview.
The next Beatles album cover parody appears on the fifth edition of MBOC, in 2007. This time, the authors get the sketch/photo collage treatment of Revolver.
For the third edition of Essential Cell Biology, Alberts, Bray, Johnson, Lewis, Raff, Roberts and Walter were joined by Karen Hopkin. The eight of them went for a Help-style author photo, and added a little biology joke in there: The authors in the top row spell out G, T, C, A in sempaphore signals – the one-letter codes for the four nucleotides in DNA. The bottom row is the complementary strand: C, A, G, T.
Essential Cell Biology‘s 4th edition came out in 2013, and the same group of eight authors now did their author photo in the style of A Hard Day’s Night. This time they went for accuracy, mimicking most of the expressions of the original cover. A notable exception: Alexander Johnson is not copying George Harrison’s cigarette photo!
Finally, the latest edition of Molecular Biology of the Cell was released in November 2014. Having exhausted the elaborate collages, they went for simplicity, and posed leaning over a balcony, just like the Beatles did on the cover of Please Please Me.
I love the Beatles cover parodies, but the joke is lost on many of the students who use these text books. Larry Moran once said that his undergraduate students didn’t understand the Abbey Road reference on the 3rd edition of Molecular Biology of the Cell, and this Reddit thread reveals that the Help parody was not recognizable to students either.
I’m pretty certain I learned about the Beatles in school, but that was way back when Alberts et al. first crossed Abbey Road for their author photo.
Interrailing through Europe with Borodin and Mendeleev
Long ago, in a kingdom that no longer exists, a bohemian traveller was mistaken for a fugitive revolutionary, and arrested.
The traveller was Russian chemist and composer Alexander Borodin, who was on his way to Italy with his friend Dmitri Mendeleev. Both men were researchers in the chemistry department of the University of Heidelberg, where they learned the ropes from Robert Bunsen (inventor of the bunsen burner) and Emil Erlenmeyer (inventor of the erlenmeyer flask). In a few years, Mendeleev would develop his own classic staple of chemistry labs – the periodic table – but now he was taking a break from science, and making his way to Italy with his friend.
They travelled light, and brought very little clothes with them. “We wore only blouses, so that we would look like artists”, Mendeleev has said of this trip. “That’s not a bad idea in Italy, because you can get along very cheaply that way. We took hardly any shirts with us, and had to buy new ones when the need arose; we gave these away to the waiters in place of tips. We absolutely let ourselves go in Italy, after the stifling cloistered life of Heidelberg.”
Picture these two men, dressed in their artists blouses, walking across large parts of Switzerland. Looking nothing like the academics they were in Heidelberg, they reached the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia. This kingdom no longer exists. The area is now Northern Italy, but was then part of the Austrian Empire, and Austrian police were on the lookout for a political fugitive.
Seeing a bohemian figure who matched the description of the revolutionary they were told would cross the border that day, the police arrested Borodin.
He was not at all the man they were looking for. Borodin had led a quiet and privileged life, filled with books, music, and education. After graduating from medical school in St Petersburg, he moved to Heidelberg to study chemistry. He spent all of his free time making music, and had already composed several pieces for piano, voice, or string ensembles. Much later, years after his untimely death at a costume party, Borodin would posthumously win a Tony Award for composing the original score used in the musical Kismet. He was a chemist, a musician, a Russian prince’s illegitimate son, a women’s rights activist, and an educator – but not a member of an Italian revolutionary movement.
By the time the police realised their mistake, the real fugitive had taken advantage of the distraction, and crossed the border. When Borodin and Mendeleev finally boarded their train, they were greeted with cheers and applause by the Italian passengers, for unwittingly helping a member of the revolution escape.
We don’t know the identity of the mysterious fugitive, but at the end of the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia was no more. The region became part of Italy, which it still is. And somewhere along the way, two Russian chemists on a low budget holiday may have played a very minor role in shaping the political situation in 19th century Northern Italy.
Source: the book “Borodin”, by Serge Dianin, translated by Robert Lord (1963). Mendeleev’s words about their outfits are quoted in the book, but originally from another book by M.N. Mladentsev and V.E. Tischenko, called “Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev. His Life and Work, Vol I.” (1938). The photo of Borodin and Mendeleev is a crop from a larger photo including two other chemists – Gitinsky and Olevinsky. The original photo was taken in 1860 – the year this story takes place. Lombardy-Venetia map in the public domain, via Wikimedia.
Off the back of the musisci survey, I also started a newsletter. It only comes out four times per year, but it will be worth it! You can see issue 1 here, and subscribe here (or in the sidebar to the right of this post) to receive future issues.
Issue 1 includes:
-Music and science survey results
-Featured music by musisci: Stornoway
-Links to various interesting and related things online.
Musicians and scientists survey results
Recently, I asked people to tell me how much music and science played a role in their lives, by answering a few survey questions. A total of 763 people* answered the survey, and the results are interesting!
The short version:
256 participants were both scientists and musicians. 130 were only musician, 219 were only scientists, and 158 were neither.
Among non-musicians, scientists were more likely than non-scientists to have previously practiced music. That was the only thing that jumped out, but I haven’t done any statistical analysis.
Among all participants, “reading” was by far the most popular hobby outside of music and science.
When asked to name a musisci, the most common answer was Brian May – closely followed by Brian Cox – but many named a far less famous musisci, including their friends or colleagues.
The long version, with more pictures: (more…)
Science and Music survey closes soon!
It’s the final days of the survey about science and music. If you haven’t yet taken it, you can do so here. If you want to know what one lucky survey participant can win, check here. (It’s so much stuff!)
When you diligently click your way through the questions, there is also a question asking you if you would like to subscribe to an upcoming sporadic newsletter. Once the first one goes out (in May) I will advertise that a bit better, but I want to avoid people signing up twice and getting too many emails.
The survey is going well: I’ve had over 700 responses so far (more than my target) and although it’s quite self-selective there are some diverse answers. It will take me a while to analyse all the answers, but I had a peak at the “other activities” and the “name a musisci” question, and I can’t wait to show you the results – even if the rest might not be exciting, those answers alone were great!
Science/music prize for survey draw
I promised an update about the prize pack you can win if you participate in the science and music survey. Now that most of the items are in, I thought I’d show you what’s at stake:
One random participant in the survey will win a music and science-themed prize pack, consisting of:
–Rap Guide to Evolution DVD, by Baba Brinkman
-Voice of an Angle EP by Helen Arney, with scientifically accurate songs about love, the sun, and more.
-Bach’s Goldberg Variations, played by Glenn Gould. The Goldberg variations are often used as example of Bach’s use of mathematics in composing.
-Festival of the Spoken Nerd tote bag. This British comedy show about science has won lots of praise, and so will you with this awesome bag!
–Science Studio stickers. Science Studio collects the best audio, video and other media about science.
-Ruler of inventors. Featuring at least one “musicsci” (Einstein) and a lot of other scientists and inventors.
Prizes were donated by Baba Brinkman (DVD), Helen Arney (EP and tote bag), Oneworld (Guitar Zero), Science Studio (stickers) and F1000 (Glenn Gould CD) so make sure to visit their sites and see what they do when they’re not donating prizes to surveys.
And don’t forget to take the survey for a chance at winning!
(If you’ve previously taken the survey, and don’t remember whether you opted in for the prize pack, please do NOT retake it, but let me know, and I will sort it out for you.)
The Music and Science survey
After spending a few years interviewing people involved in music and science, and reading a bit on the topic, it was time to find out a bit more about people’s interests in music and science.
I’ve created a survey, which only takes a few minutes to fill out, and you can enter in a draw to win some goodies. To be considered for the draw, you will need to complete the survey before April 30, 2015.
It’s open to everyone! Yes, YOU should fill it out!
Here are some questions I think you might have about the survey, especially if you came from the survey page. If you have any other questions, please leave them in the comments below.
Who are you and why are you doing this?
I’m Eva. I work in science publishing and science communication. I used to be a biochemist, I play violin and am trying to learn some other instruments. I noticed over the years that there are always a lot of other scientists in my orchestras, and other musicians in my science circles, so I want to explore that further and learn more about these “musisci”.
It’s a term I coined to indicate people who do both music and science. It’s pronounced “myoo-sis-eye”, or like you’re starting to say “musical” but with “sci” instead of “cal”.
Is this for academic research?
No. Although I have a PhD, it’s not in social sciences, and I’m not currently affiliated with any academic organisation, so there’s nothing scientific about this. This survey is just to learn a bit more about people’s interests while I further explore the topic.
Your survey is not properly designed.
That’s not a question. But no, it’s not. I realise that there are several biases in the sampling, and that the questions aren’t well-balanced. Like I said above, this is not an academic analysis, but just a way to quickly gauge where people’s interests lie, and to potentially find new people to interview.
What can we win in the random draw?
See this post for photo and list of the prizes.
How will we know who won the random draw?
The winner will be contacted directly so that I can ask where to send the prize. If they are happy with their name being announced, I will also post it on this blog, and in the newsletter about this project.
How are you going to draw the winner?
With a random number generator and a numbered list of participants.
How often are you going to send that newsletter, and what’s in it?
Quarterly, or less often. This is not my full-time commitment at the moment, and progress is very slow, so I won’t even have more to share. As for content, I will tell you the results of the survey (anonymized), future plans for this project, and you’ll get some fun links and news about musisci in general. I’ll use a system where you can easily unsubscribe. The first one will not arrive any time before May.
What are you going to do with my email address?
Only what you agree for me to use it for. The last part of the survey has all the details.
I hope that makes things clear. Don’t forget to take the survey now!
Science music playlist
For your entertainment, I have created a short YouTube playlist of some science-y songs. It includes some songs about science, and some science-themed parody covers. Perfect for playing in the lab! I included this video of Uri Alon singing about peer review, which I recorded at the Horizons conference career fair a few weeks ago. Alon is a group leader at the Weizman institute who regularly speaks – and sings – about the culture of science. I’ve been a fan of his songs and commentaries for years, so I obviously took a front row seat at his keynote talk.
As far as I can tell, this song is not available anywhere outside of some YouTube videos, but some of the songs on the science playlist are available to purchase online, and if you like them you should buy them (preferably directly from the artists – info at the bottom of the post), but if you want to just try them out the YouTube playlist is a start.
The problem with YouTube, though, is that you have to play it from YouTube, and that’s not always practical. Sometimes it’s really just the sound you need, and not all those videos.
There are ways to convert YouTube to mp3 music, which you can then play from your favourite audio player (or phone, let’s be realistic) on the go. To get this playlist working on my iPhone, I used the free mp3 converter Flvto to extract the music as mp3.
It’s quite simple to use: Grab the url of a video, paste it in the box on the site, and click “convert”. There is no registration required, so that’s really all there is to it. I tried it on the video posted above.
Step 2 (and that’s it. After this you just select where you want to save the audio: direct download, save to Dropbox, or email.)
I’ve tried it on a few of my videos using this method, and it works really fast. Flvto also has a desktop converter, where you can convert several tracks at once, but for my YouTube converter needs the website worked well enough. There are also add-ons for Firefox, IS, and Safari (Chrome is still to come), but again, I was happy with just the web interface. Although I only used it for YouTube, it should also work for videos that are on other sites.
Is it legal or ethical?
An obvious question, and I looked into some of the issues before making my playlist. Extracting the audio of a video is in itself legal in many jurisdictions, and so is listening to it by yourself. Flvto has some information about this on their website as well. There are many perfectly ethical reasons for grabbing the audio track from a video, Think of remixes, mashups, collabs, and short reviews.
However, if you just want music to listen to, the artists would prefer if you paid for the music where possible, even if they uploaded the YouTube video themselves. The music I have included in this playlist is not always available for purchase anywhere, but where there is, I have listed the relevant links below, and I’ve also bought a few of the tracks after first listening to free samples myself.
The playlist tracks:
- Idealized Science Ditty – Nimbleweed
- I am a paleontologist – They Might Be Giants
- Peer review song – Uri Alon
- Not available for purchase
- Bohemian Gravity – A Capella Science
- Rejected – Richard Flavell
- Not available for purchase
- Bad project – Zheng Lab
- Not available for purchase
- The Lab Song – Cohenford lab
- Not available for purchase
- I love science (clean version) – Hank Green
- Statistically, I love you – Helen Arney
- The New Period Table (in order) – ASAP Science
This post is promoted content, but all opinions, song selections, and suggested links to purchase are mine.