NY Times 5.17.2005

When You Wish Upon an Atom: The Songs of Science


It’s been years since Timothy Sellers, then a budding naturalist, licked a slug. Now he writes pop songs about scientists who were less absurd about their empiricism. Thirteen of them appear on “26 Scientists: Volume 1, Anning to Malthus,” a CD that Mr. Sellers and his Los-Angeles-based band, Artichoke, recently released.

That’s Mary Anning, the 18th-century Briton who assembled fossils to support her family and who first discovered the ichthyosaur. As in Artichoke’s other songs, the one about Malthus mixes biographical detail (“Thomas Robert Malthus/the second son of eight kids/grew up with a stutter”) with intellectual history (“with the revolution/came a lot of high hopes/Malthus took a good look/uh-oh uh-oh) and the primordial rock chords of G, D and C (“la la la a la/la la la la la/la la la la la”).

In the small but slowly accreting world of science-themed music, songs tend to focus on processes and objects, as in Tom Lehrer’s “Elements.” Mr. Sellers, a 37-year-old artist and set painter, wants to change that balance, focusing on scientists “because people like to listen to songs about people,” he says.

Though he’s not a scientist, Mr. Sellers pursued a major in physics before switching to art at Williams College (where he and this reporter became acquainted). It seems natural to him that someone would want to dig up Mary Anning’s past, Darwin’s wandering attention span and Einstein’s sleeping habits, or take on the challenge of putting “geocentric,” “Copernican” and “phlogiston” into pop songs. The bigger challenge, Mr. Sellers says, was to “try to write every song so that people would dig it.”

He ends up with songs that draw scientists not as heroes or as mad geniuses, but as ordinary people who befriended a new idea or two and paid the costs of their passions. Most of the scientists he sings about have been treated well by history: Einstein, Kelvin, Galileo, Heisenberg, Darwin, Marie Curie and Joseph Lister. Others, like the Dutch chemist Jan Ingenhousz, who investigated light, air and plants, are more obscure.

Rock music, even of the indie persuasion, tends to avoid science. The Pixies have a song about Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, builder of the Eiffel Tower, and the celebrated geekiness of They Might Be Giants produced “Particle Man” (“Particle man, particle man/doing the things a particle can”) and “The Sun Is a Mass of Incandescent Gas,” among other science-y songs. And the folk-pop duo Kate and Anna McGarrigle made chemistry a metaphor for romance in “NaCl” (“Just a little atom of chlorine, valence minus one/Swimming through the sea, digging the scene, just having fun”). Scientific themes probably show up more often in music videos, as in Thomas Dolby’s 1980’s hit, “Blinded by Science.”

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Tom Lehrer, a mathematician-turned-entertainer, contributed classic science songs like “The Elements” (“antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium”), “Wernher von Braun” and “There’s a Delta for Every Epsilon.”

Around the same time, William Stirrat, an electronics engineer, co-produced six albums of science songs for children (“Why Does the Sun Shine?” and “Vibration”). Mr. Stirrat, whose songwriting nom de plume was Hy Zaret, was better known as the person who wrote the lyrics to “Unchained Melody.”

Now, most science songs are written for middle school science students, says Lynda Jones, a former teacher and a co-founder of the Science Songwriters’ Association in 1999. The association now has 40 members, a mix of professional musicians and science teachers. Dr. Greg Crowther, an acting lecturer of biology at the University of Washington and an association member, has archived 1,800 songs about science on his Web site.

The association also helps amateurs record their music, encourages songwriters to fill out the song paradigm (marine biology lacks songs) and keeps the science up to date.
Scientific accuracy is a big challenge, Ms. Jones says, interrupting a telephone interview to sing a problematic lyric she adamantly opposes: “Just one element is what an atom’s made of.”
“No, no, no, that’s wrong,” she says. “No scientist talks that way.” She often brushes up the science in her own songs. At the recent meeting of the American Chemical Society, she was reminded that electrons do not actually orbit the nucleus of the atom, but vibrate in a cloud around it. “And I thought, well, I have to change my song,” she says.

In his quest to enshrine scientists in rock ‘n’ roll, Mr. Sellers forced himself to choose just one for each letter of the alphabet. “D” was crowded, but Darwin (“grandson of a poet, also of a potter, was brought up by his sister”) beat out da Vinci and Doppler.

The list still provokes conversations about whom to include, but mixing the well-known with the obscure was deliberate. “If I picked all totally obscure scientists, people wouldn’t go ‘ah-hah’ quite so fast or at all,” Mr. Sellers says. “I also like scientists people know something about because they come with a context.”

Finding women was also a challenge. Volume 1 includes Marie Curie and Mary Anning; Volume 2 will have a song about the physicist Chien-Shiung Wu, whose quip makes up the chorus: “There’s only one thing worse than coming home/from the lab to a sink that’s full of dirty dishes foam/and that’s not going out to the lab at all.”

Mr. Sellers also minds the accuracy of his songs. In some cases, he explains, the song’s structure “selects for” a certain line. In the song about Dr. Wu, who died in 1997, he needed to add another syllable to her conclusion that “parity was not conserved.” (In physics, “parity” hypothesizes that two symmetrical systems will develop symmetrically. Dr. Wu and her colleagues showed this wasn’t the case.) The line, which now reads “parity was not quite conserved,” scans better – though it softens Dr. Wu’s claim.

If Mr. Sellers is self-congratulatory about anything, it’s the band’s ability to rock. On a recent Sunday evening, Artichoke rehearsed in the living room of Mr. Sellers’s Los Angeles home, thick sheets of foam hung over the windows to keep the Pixies-like guitar hooks and bass riffs away from the neighbors.

This brand of garage psychedelia still finds room for an accordion as well as the de rigueur theremin, played by the band’s only real scientist, Steve Collins, an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Their sound has won some notice, including a 2002 review in The Los Angeles Times that praised the “inspired songwriting” and “infectious indie pop.”

Mr. Sellers grew up in upstate New York, the oldest son of back-to-the-land parents who took to the woods and built an A-frame house with no electricity or indoor plumbing. Mr. Sellers calls it his “Robinson Crusoe childhood.” He and his younger brother created their own natural history society, where all the members were required to present their discoveries.

Mr. Sellers’s slug-licking episode occurred when he was 10 and was helping his mother tend their garden tomatoes. As he removed slugs rom the plants, he recalled asking, “Why don’t the birds eat them?” Because they don’t taste good, she replied. Disbelieving, he picked up a slug and licked it, an act he quickly regretted: the slug indeed tasted bad, and its slime burned his tongue. But he used his data. He wrote about the experience to get into Williams, singing the praises of first-hand exploration.

Stephanie Diani for The New York Times