June 9, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich
Making science songs
I wrote what follows in 2012. Now it’s 2021, I can’t believe it, and we are living in a time when science has become a matter of survival. We are living through the Covid-19 pandemic and vaccines have been developed at speed to help us get out of this mess. Music and songs have helped us along the way, just like science. But there is also a cross-over between the two. Sea shanties went viral on TikTok and beyond; and now we have a sea shanty inspired vaccine song by @acapellascience: Listen to it here!!! These are depressing times but science and culture help us get to the other side.
Last week I was watching a NASA life feed of the transit of Venus. Towards the end of the video the scientists were all laughing and giggling with over-excitement and one of them said something like ‘what can we do now but burst into song’. At the same time I came across a song about quarks and another one on kets on twitter, as well as a link to physics songs sung at the Cavendish in the 1900s and a currently running science songwriter of the future competition. My son then sent me a song sung by one of his lecturers. So I asked myself: What is it with scientists and songs? And do only natural scientists make their science public through song or can one also find examples in the social sciences and humanities? I don’t think by the end of this blog I’ll have any answers to these questions, but if you, dear reader, have some, please let me know.
Periodic table song
But before even trying to answer such questions, let us gather some more information, I mean some more tunes. The best-known science song is probably the periodic table song which comes in many variations (just put periodic table song into YouTube!). The classic version was composed by Tom Lehrer. However, here at the University of Nottingham we have the famous Periodic Videos filmed by Brady Haran and featuring Martyn Poliakoff. In the following video you can see Martyn listening to a new version of the Periodic Table Song composed by David Newman.
And here it is being sung by Daniel Radcliffe.
New version from
@AsapSCIENCE (added 21 May, 2013) HT @ri_science
Golden ratio song
And here is a golden ratio song composed and enacted by our very own Phil Moriarty (and regular contributor to Periodic Videos) for Numberphile. It’s in fact a math metal song! For more info about how the song was created by Phil and YouTuber Dave Brown (boyinaband) see here. To quote Phil: “Brady, Dave, and I had a blast making it.”
Phil has now (November 2012) recorded a more gentle golden ration song (Tau of Phi)!
What are songs for?
There are probably thousands of popular science songs out there. Some can be found here and here! You can listen forever. But why do they exist? The answer lies somewhere between education and entertainment. They are used to bring science to children (see here: songs for teaching). They are used to make some scientific concepts, especially in anatomy, more memorable. They are also just fun. And, at least according to the title of one website, they make geeks (here pictured as a female) sexy! They are, in short, one way of making science public.
Most songs that I have sampled come from the natural sciences (and here is another compilation). But what about other human and social sciences? There is a rather disparaging song by Tom Lehrer about sociology, but we better forget about that. What about linguistics, my own subject area? Almost 30 years ago I went to a conference organised by the Henry Sweet Society for the History of Linguistic Ideas in Oxford. Its title stems from the name the philologist and phonetician Henry Sweet who in part inspired the figure of Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady. So, as an interlude during the conference proceedings we watched some extracts from My Fair Lady where Higgins tries to teach Eliza to speak properly (here is my favourite song!). But is this the only linguistics song? Surprisingly, I found another more current one composed by the Guild of Scientific Troubadours. One of the guild had read an article in New Scientist about the evolution of language. As the author of the article points out: “At the centre of the story was the idea of sound symbolism – the theory that certain linguistic sounds carry an inherent meaning. If you hear a nonsense word like ‘kiki’, for instance, you are more likely to think of a sharp object, while ‘bouba’ has curvy connotations. Riffing off this idea, Grant wrote “The Shape of your Words”, which strings together a series of dreamy, mellifluous words to convey his tender feelings for a loved one. Half-spoken, half-sung, its vibe is somewhere between Laura Veirs, The Moldy Peaches and Serge Gainsbourg.”
Added 28 January 2018: More linguistics songs, including one about….. Ferdinand de Saussure!!!
After some digging I also found a blog devoted to songs about sociology, but unfortunately you can’t immediately click through to the tunes. The songs mentioned are mostly about social issues that have inspired music and songs. By contrast you CAN listen to the sociology revision song which covers Marxists, Functionalists, Interactionalists and Feminists, written to the tune of ‘Superstition’ by Stevie Wonder.
Pat Thompson suggested that I add Monty Python’s The Philosopher’s Drinking Song to my list. And a very good suggestions this was too! Here are the lyrics and here is the performance.
And one more added on 19 December 2012 A mostly German philosophers love song! brought to you by
Not real songs but just for fun #philosophysongs on twitter!! (added 16 July): https://twitter.com/#!/search/%23philosophysongs
David Bowie’s Space Oddity sung in space by astronaut Chris Hadfield (added 12 May, 2013)
Sung underground by astronaut Chris Hatfield at BBC (added 12 December, 2013)
Swift song by Astrocapella (and more here)
Sung by Tom Lehrer! Here.
Fun, fun, glorious fun
After I sent out a tweet asking for more examples of songs used in the social sciences, the only reply I got was from Antoine Blanchard who told me about a song that in a way establishes a link between science and society or science and life. It’s Experiment by Cole Porter. Here are the last few verses:
though interfering friends may frown.
at each attempt to hold you down.
If this advice you’ll only employ,
the future can offer you infinite joy
and you’ll see.
Finally, when I asked my husband if he could please come up with a further example of a social science song, he burst into the Gasman Cometh song by Flanders and Swann!
And I leave you with a particle physics song sung by the CERN choir to the tune of Flanders and Swann’s Hippopotamus song and another Flanders and Swann song on Thermodynamics….. Enjoy! Songs are surely one of the most delightful ways of merging science and culture.
MORE Songs (added after I posted the original blog on 9 June, 2012):
Suggested by Rebekah Higgitt
@beckyfh: History of Science Songs
Suggested by Andrew Turner
@ATurner0: A priori by @carriejenkins (Wonderful!); and The 21st century monads
Suggested by artificialphilosophy.blogspot.com: Scottish scientists and inventors: http://youtu.be/Ka6jyemVZy8
Songs by Martin Austwick: Songs from the Scientific Cabaret
Celebrating Curiosity landing on Mars/Celebrating NASA
Science Songwriter of the Future! (2012) RESULTS! – first prize for a song on the LHC!!
Lawyer sings satires about cosmology (yes!)
Fossil Rock Anthem (HT
@Volcanologist) It ROCKS!!
Small potatoes sing about science (Small potatoes info)
Zheng Lab – Bad Project (Lady Gaga parody)
NASA scientists rap and dance about their career Gangnam style
The Galaxy Song by Eric Idle for Monty Python
And here is the Wonders of Life Song for BBC 2 Wonders of Life, 2013
The nano song – enjoy!!
“How would you explain “nanotechnology” to a science novice? A group of UC Berkeley students and alums answered this call with a pint-sized video — part “Sound of Music,” part Muppets, part Dan the Science Man — whose online reception has been anything but small.”
The Higgs Boson Blues (HT@Stephen_Curry)
The Horrible History Songs! Including the Charles Darwin Evolution song
I fucking love science by Hank Green! Hank wears a T-shirt with Martyn Poliakoff on it
(more subtle than the previous) the Structural Genomics Song
2007 list of science pop songs collected by New Scientist (HT
(Image: Female undergraduate student singing in the Djanogly Recital Hall, University Park, University Image Bank)
Brilliant! Here’s another covering Scottish scientists and inventors: http://youtu.be/Ka6jyemVZy8
Thanks for the suggestion! I have added it to the ‘repertoire’!
[…] Some topics were just there for the picking, such as the increasingly surreal wrangling over neuroscience, well captured in this nice spoof, or the data visualisation of Darwin’s tree of life, or the anniversary of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, or a guest blog on botany and so on. Public lectures were covered in some posts, such as in this guest blog by Ash Chaudry. Holidays too provided inspiration for posts, such as thinking about Venice and then the importance of glass in science. More seriously, the issue of transparency also needed to be tackled, as well as that of visualisation. And less seriously, I loved writing a blog post about the joy of making science songs…. […]
[…] I have been following Brady Haran’s work as a science video journalist here at the University of Nottingham since its beginning in 2008. We have had many chats about his ethos and his practice of communicating science. On Tuesday 22 January I went to a talk by Brady that brought this ethos to life for me, an ethos that underpins his ambition to bring science to life. The talk was part of Acritas, a Marie Curie Initial Training workshop whose primary focus is advanced training and research in scanning probe-based nanoscience at the single bond limit. The talk took place in the School of Physics (here is a photo tweeted by @julianonion), with many of the protagonists present who are involved in making the videos I’ll talk about below. Phil Moriarty, one of the busiest contributors, and, as we learned, commenters, sat just in front of me (he also features in my ‘Making Science Songs’ blog post!) […]
[…] as “Making the planet public”, “Making thoughts public”, “Making plants science”, “Making science songs” and so […]