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Scientists’ favourite music. What do they listen to while they work?

by Eva Amsen

What if you could only bring a few albums with you to a desert island? Which ones would you bring? Since 1942, BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs has been asking their distinguished guests this very question. Their website lists all the “castaways” of the past 75 years, and you can search per profession to find the desert island disks of people in a particular field, so you can use it to find scientists’ favourite music. There are 130 people in the “medicine, science and engineering” category, of which 82 are labeled as scientist.

Here, we can learn that Computer Scientist Dame Wendy Hall likes The Beatles, that Cosmologist Maggie Aderin-Pocock would take a Stevie Wonder album to a desert island, and that Jane Goodall chose a recording of Dylan Thomas’ radio drama Under Milk Wood as her favourite album.

Desert Island Discs’ castaways are all well-known guests, and only a small fraction of them are scientists. The podcast Science Mixtape follows a similar format, and all their guests are scientists or science communicators. Like Desert Island Discs, the scientists on this show choose the music for the episode, and talk to the host about their work. For example, Elodie Chabrol talked about her experience running a Pint of Science event. She chose some music I hadn’t heard of before, like French musician Sinclair. Science Mixtape and Desert Island Discs are an interesting format to get to know a guest beyond their answers to interview questions, and to get some new music recommendations in the process.

Scientists’ favourite music

One thing that is immediately clear when you start asking scientists about their favourite music is that they have varied tastes. There is no specific type of “scientists’ favourite music”. I asked scientists on Twitter to tell me their favourite music, and the responses covered almost every genre.

Here are a few responses collected in a Storify slideshow:

A lot of scientists listen to different kinds of music depending on what they’re doing at that moment. Energetic music keeps them active in the lab while running experiments, but they might switch to classical or instrumental music when they need to sit down to write a paper.

This variety in music choice – both between individual scientists and for different situations – is part of the reason I’m skeptical when people suggests that scientists like music because they’re supposedly attracted to the mathematical concepts behind it.

My “microscope music”

When I was doing my PhD research, I was doing an experiment that required me to sit in a very small and dark room for hours at a time, marking thousands of cells on a computer screen, one by one. And when I say “small and dark room”, that’s just a nice way of describing what essentially was a converted closet. This microscope was the only one of its kind that we had, so it was in high demand. I needed to finish this experiment, though, so I had to reserve the microscope at unfortunate hours: 6AM on a Sunday or 10PM on Friday night, for example.

Imagine sitting in a dark closet for hours at a time when you’re already tired, staring at a screen, and with nobody else in the building. What would you do? Well, I got through it by blasting the 2002 album “Ben Folds Live”, a live recording of a Ben Folds tour in which he plays both his early solo work and some classic from Ben Folds Five.

Now, whenever I hear this album, I get this flash of a mental image of me sitting in the dark behind a large computer screen next to a microscope, staring at the screen and laboriously photographing and counting hundreds of microscopic cells while drinking the coffee I smuggled into this “no food” area of the lab. It’s a specific memory with a specific soundtrack, and that’s why this album would be one of the ones that I would bring with me on my own desert island trip.

What about you? What music do you listen to while you work, or what music would you bring to a desert island?

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