*This is a post from a while back that for some reason wasn't migrated over when I moved from Blogger. I'm using it to practice putting together blogposts in Squarespace but I also think it's interesting enough to put up again.
More than people who can give a good talk or write a good article distilling complicated scientific ideas, I admire those who managed to combine the arts of science communication and music. This is amplified by the fact that I have the creative imagination of a gnat and falling over noisily is about as musical as I get.
A really good song/musical piece combines a clear message about how science works, or a particular process, theory or technique, in a way that leaves you having learned something new about how the world works, whilst being thoroughly entertained. There's a lot of great stuff out there so I thought I'd try and bring some of it into one place. It’s not a comprehensive list by any means; these just some of the bands and artists that have crossed my path and piqued my interest with their blend of science, scepticism and musical wizardry.
Symphony of Science
Weaving together video clips and audio from scientific luminaries, skilfully auto-tuned in a way that T-Pain or Kanye West can only dream, Symphony of Science videos hit exactly the right note. Since it started up in 2009, 16 songs have been produced and released, which, to show just how brilliant the project is, they’ve made into a compilation album that you can listen to and download for free.
Next on the list is ‘Lit-Hop’ artist Baba Brinkman, who combines science with clever, witty and peer-reviewed rap. I think The Rap Guide to Evolution is work of bona fide genius and the Dawkins-sampling Darwins Acid is one of my favourite songs by any artist, ever. Performance, Feedback Revision is pretty darned good, too.
In his video for Creationist Cousins, Baba goes all Eddie Murphy as he explains that monkeys are still around because it's not that we evolved from them, it is that they are our cousins, with whom we share a common ancestor - something that anti-evolutions seem to continue to deliberately misunderstand.
Nerdcore Hip Hop
A trail of links from Baba Brinkman’s home of hip-hop led me to the discovery of 'nerdcore hip hop', and its cheeky little cousin 'geeksta rap', which has gained enough of a following in the US to warrant a documentary, Nerdcore Rising, about its founding father MC Frontalot (left).
Nerdcore hip hop isn't necessarily always about science (it also covers sci-fi, video games and technology) - and I'm not such a fan of the term nerd - but there are some great nerdcore artists like MC Hawking, who uses a speech-to-text program to put together gangsta rap inspired songs on Newton's laws of motion ("All My Shootings Be Drivebys"), Einstein's theory of relativity ("E=MC Hawking"), the Big Bang ("The Big Bizang"), and quantum physics subjects such as Schrödinger's cat and the wave function collapse ("Rock Out With Your Hawk Out").
My favourite has be to Entropy, where MC Hawking spits mad rhymes on the topic of thermodynamics.
Phycisist and science communicator/amateur-rapper Kate McAlpine, responsible for the viral hit the Black Hole Rap (testifying to the safety of the LHC, complete with cheesy dad-dancing) has helpfully rounded up a list of science rappers here.
McAlpine is a great example of a professional scientist who has embraced music as a tool to communicate her work, rather than most of the others on this list who are professional musicians/artists with an enthusiasm for science. Her video directly inspired a group of students from Sydenham High School to put together their own and the Geiger–Müller Groove. A catchy chorus and lines like “you must excuse my grammar when I am talking about gamma” won them the Physics Institute Best Physics Film, 2009.
Flocabulary is another great example of using rap to communicate science. Unfortunately, you have to pay to access most of the songs but there are lots of excellent free samples. If you’ve forgotten the formula for calculating the area of a triangle, I guarantee you never will again after listening to this. Forget ‘hos and bling – Euclidean geometry is where it’s at.
They Might Be Giants
American alt-rock band They Might Be Giants have a whole Grammy-nominated album of great pop tunes covering chemistry, evolutionary, astronomy, biology and physics.
I think their Wikipedia entry does them a slight disservice by describing Here Comes the Science as a 'children's album' (no doubt based on the outrageously catchy melodies), because there's a lot to be learned whatever your age. That said, it is a great tool for communicating science to children. I remember giving a talk in a primary school a little while back where Meet the Elements, and its fun, imaginatively animated video, was used to kick-start a chemistry lesson for excitable 8-year-olds.
Though, it takes a lot to beat Tom Leherer reciting the periodic table over a jaunty piano arrangement as a way to learn about the elements.
A list of science communication just wouldn't be complete without a mention of Tim Minchin's fantastically skeptical beat poem Storm (from the album Ready for This), which was turned into a gorgeous animated movie that has now had over 2.5 million hits on Youtube. I want to make some kind of cheesy pun about it being 'a perfect storm' of science, skepticism and humour, but I won't. Or maybe I just did.
Of course, blending science and music can also go wrong
Here’s a report in the Daily Mail, where else, of some 'boffins' at Mindlab, working with Radox, the sponsor of the study (who just happen to also be in the business of selling relaxing bath oils) to make the most relaxing song ‘EVER CREATED’. They use scientific theory and connected their participants to wires and sensors and everything. It's so relaxing that you might die listening to it.
Science Nation Army
I was delighted when one of my team members from 2010 British Science Festival X-change, Anna Perman and her scicomm colleagues at Imperial College made Science Nation Army, which exploded all over the internet. As cool and well put together as the video is, I'm inclined to agree with the couple of criticisms posted in the comments of the Guardian post - I’m not sure there was any ‘science’ actually being communicated.
The best musical videos are those where the fun of the medium do not exceed the clarity and the importance of the message. But then again, who am I to talk. The most musical science-related thing I've ever done is not fall over whilst dancing to science-themed songs for the 2010 British Science Festival flash mob.