Voice of America 7.13.2005
Recently a major U.S. paper, The New York Times, declared a new trend in music – songs about science. That’s right, folk singers and rock bands singing about physics, astronomy or molecular biology. Just how big is this “trend?” And who is listening?
Galileo is just one of the scientists the Los Angeles band Artichoke sings about on its CD, 26 Scientists, Volume One. The songs are biographical sketches full of personal details about some of science’s most famous figures. For instance, Albert Einstein may have been a genius, but he was a notoriously bad violin player. And Charles Darwin suffered from a wandering attention span. The band also celebrates some lesser known scientists, such as Joseph Lister – from whom a mouthwash “Listerine” gets its name. Lister, as the father of antiseptic surgery, figured out doctors needed to wash their hands.
Artichoke’s founder and main songwriter, Timothy Sellers, chose a scientist for each letter of the alphabet. Volume One goes from “A” for Mary Anning, a paleontologist, to “M” for Thomas Robert Malthus, famous for his Principle of Population.
“I tried to pick the one with the best story. When you find good personal information it is really nice to grab onto it and try to work that into a song – like Thomas Robert Malthus, the fact that he had a stutter. And Galileo has the really sing-able name Galilei Galileo, so you can’t go wrong there,” says Mr. Sellers.
Artichoke is hard at work on its Volume Two CD, picking scientists for the remainder of the alphabet, which, says Mr. Sellers, can be a challenge.
“X is coming up. I pretty much went with whoever was available. X is Xenophanes. He was an ancient Greek, who was walking around in the countryside and he saw fossils of fish on tops of mountains and he thought, ‘Hey this probably was ocean at one point and so there’s either a lot of time or a lot of change, or both.’ I am very glad he [his name] began with X,” he says.
Although Mr. Sellers calls himself a lapsed physics major, having once studied it in college, only one member of Artichoke works in a science-related field, engineering. Yet there are enough actual physicists, biologists and astronomers out there writing songs to warrant a Science Songwriters’ Association.
That’s Walter Smith, associate professor of physics at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, where he’s known on campus for singing about physics in his classroom.
“A lot of our tunes are set to well established folk melodies. They are tunes that are not necessarily familiar to my students because they are a younger generation but they just love the whole experience about having a song sung to them about physics at all,” he says.
Professor Smith began writing science songs with his wife in 2001 as a way to engage students. Then he started posting them on the Internet.
“I discovered there were a lot of songs about physics that are out there on the web but they are completely unorganized, so maybe I should be the one to do this. So I created this website Physicsongs.org and the site has just sort of grown over the years. With that growth I feel I have become the world’s expert on physics songs,” he says.
And there is a wide variety of musical styles. Smith’s preference is folk, but if that is not yours, how about a cappella?
“The Chromatics are a group that that does a cappella songs about astronomy. They are obviously very in the know because some of their songs are about satellites that have not even been launched yet, these are research satellites that are still in the planning phases, and yet members of this group know about that. So they are pretty well plugged,” he says.
There is even something for cabaret fans.
“Lynda Williams at one point in her career was a show girl but now is a physics instructor. Her style is more of a sultry cabaret style so her songs are not really intended for use in the classroom,” says Mr. Smith.
Mr. Smith says that most science songs fall into one of two categories, the first being educational.
“Then there is a different category of physics songs which are really intended for the entertainment of physicists, so these would be songs that are sung at physics picnics or at the opening of a new facility. A lot of the song are just chock full of things that are in-jokes to physicists,” he says.
Physics picnics, who knew? Although their tunes about deuterons or magnetic fields may never top any radio charts, these singing physicists are evidence that outside of the lab, scientists just want to have fun.