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Musical scientists

by Eva Amsen

Albert Einstein played violin, and composer Alexander Borodin was a researcher in organic chemistry. They were not the only ones dabbling in both music and science. Even though these disciplines are usually regarded as two unrelated fields, quite a few people are practicing both.

An article in the Darthmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science addresses this topic, and ascribed the phenomenon to the common underlying aesthetics and mathematics of both disciplines. While this sounds plausible, it may also have something to do with a similarity in working style. Neither researchers nor performing musicians have nine-to-five jobs. They both balance physical and mental work, and see a lot of variety in their daily tasks.

American Analog Set’s Andrew Kenny was also attracted to the working style of both science and music. He started a graduate program in Biochemistry while playing and touring with his band. In an interview with Junkmedia he says:

“you spend a lot of time by yourself and you have to keep a lot in your head, like, an experiment that takes days is a lot like recording and mixing a song over a couple of days. And, knowing at any point, if you decide to cut corners it will only end up detracting from the end result.”

In the same interview he compares the genetic code to music; an analogy often made by scientists. Ross King developed a program to convert DNA sequences to “protein music”, and Linda Long used protein structures to make her strangely new age-sounding Molecular Music.

Andrew Kenny eventually realized that he couldn’t be active full-time in both disciplines, and quit graduate school. However, several scientists have been able to find a balance between their passions for science and music. A group of Yale biology investigators led by Dr. Richard Flavell forms “The Cellmates”, a rock band that performs songs about research and the ups and downs of running a lab. Dr. Bert Vogelstein’s “Wild Type” is a similar band composed of cancer researchers from Baltimore, playing at scientific meetings and charity events in local bars. Musicians are also found among scientists outside the life sciences. At the 2005 regional science fair in Montreal, the keynote speaker, physicist Diane de Kerckhove, spoke about how she combines her career as a successful scientist with her job as a professional jazz singer, which has had her performing for audiences including Paul McCartney and Bill Clinton.

These are only a few examples of people that stand out because they excel in either science or music, but more low profile people also pursue both interests: students majoring in science and music, science teachers playing in rock bands, or physicians who play in their local community orchestra. It’s not immediately obvious what the shared appeal is: it could be a penchant for mathematics and aesthetics or a dislike of nine-to-five desk jobs, but it might be something else. Maybe these interdisciplinary interests can be explained by a mapping of brain regions. Studies have been published on the regions of the brain involved in music perception, but these were usually focused on the result of music on the brain, and not on patterns that could indicate a preference for performing or research. It will probably take a scientist with musical interests to investigate this.

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tags: Science, Music

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