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.
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.
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)
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):
Songs by Martin Austwick: Songs from the Scientific Cabaret
Science Songwriter of the Future! (2012) RESULTS! – first prize for a song on the LHC!!
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)
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
(Image: Female undergraduate student singing in the Djanogly Recital Hall, University Park, University Image Bank)