Tag Archives: Bill Nye

Music About Science

I have an opinion that might be unpopular around here: I don’t like music about science. My love of science and scientific knowledge cannot be impugned — my Ph.D. is all the evidence I need to make my case. I never would have made it through my 14 years of biology education if I didn’t love science. I even love boring science lecture — both hearing them and giving them. Music is also very important to me. I have been a casual musician for most of my life, and listening to music and making music are deeply fulfilling for me. There is a bunch of music out there that is about science, and it would be reasonable to guess that I would love this music. But I don’t. There is a time for music, and there is a time for a boring science lecture, but when I’m listening to music, what I want is not a boring science lecture.

Exhibit A:

Symphony of science is pretty popular. But let’s face it — this is literally just a boring science lecture that has been auto-tuned. The words of Carl Sagan, for example, are inspiring in their own right. I don’t think making them musical adds anything to them. If anything, I think his words are cheapened slightly by the gimmick.

Exhibit B:

I have a lot of love for Baba Brinkman, so I feel a little bit bad for listing him here. He is brilliant, great with words, and a good performer. I respect him a lot for using his medium to explain science. I particularly like the way he used this anti-evolution rally song as a base for this song about the science of political values and religion.

I got to see him perform once at an evolutionary psychology conference, and I really have nothing but love for him. For the times that I actually do want to listen to a boring science lecture set to music, I go straight to Baba Brinkman. But this doesn’t change the fact that his work is still essentially a boring science lecture, albeit spoken very rhythmically.

Exhibit C:

Hank Green’s “I Fucking Love Science” is cute. There are some clever lines, but it’s not what I want out of music. It is literal and a little bit lecture-ey at times. What I mean should be clear in a minute.

Please don’t misunderstand me — there is no judgement here. Musicians should write about whatever they want to write about, and people should listen to whatever they want to listen to. My feelings about the music I mention are just my own feelings. I also don’t mean to disparage any of these artists. I’ve tried writing music myself, and I can’t go around calling the kettle black.

This is not about what music I think people should or shouldn’t be writing and listening to, it’s just about what I want out of music. What do I want out of music? Some poetry. Some metaphor. The language of emotion. And would a drum solo kill you?

When I listen to music, I want to be able to identify with the emotions that are conveyed through the medium.

Take this song:

This song is reportedly about Kurt Cobain’s relationship with Tobi Vail, the drummer for Bikini Kill. You may not like this song as much as I do, but you will agree that at no point does this song, which is about a human relationship, sound like an anthropologist talking about the mating behavior of gorillas. The song is about the emotions, not the details. No boring lectures anywhere.

Kurt Cobain talks about his experience in this song without making the context perfectly clear. But it is deeply expressive and poetic, and it is exactly what I want out of a song.

Take another song about a relationship that ended:

Kris Kristofferson’s take on this topic has much more of a narrative style than Kurt Cobain’s. There is no question about what Me and Bobby McGee is about. But there is still poetry. He could have said, “Now she’s gone and I really miss her.” That would have communicated his point effectively, but there is no poetry to it. Instead, he chose to say, “and I’d trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday.” Give me a minute to catch my breath.

I think the mistake that people make when writing music about science is talking like scientists instead of lyricists. There is a reason why we have scientists write our science, and musicians write our music. It has famously been said that, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Each of these media have their style, and limits to their application.

Here is what I would like to see: music about the experience of science, rather than the outcome of science. We have beautiful, poetic music about the experience of love, death, happiness, sex, jealousy, war, fatherhood, dissatisfaction, and basically every other human experience one could have. But very little beautiful, poetic music about science.

Consider, for a moment, Leonardo DaVinci. He was both a great scientist and a great artist. Remember that this was the guy who painted the Last Supper, the Mona Lisa, and the Vitruvian Man. If he was going to write a song about science, what would it have sounded like? “If the air passing over the top of a wing is moving faster than the air moving under the wing, it will reduce the pressure above the wing and create lift. La dee dee, la dee dah.” No, probably not.

Through my pursuit of science, I have experienced a wide range of emotions. Scientific discovery can be wonderful, beautiful, painful, emotional, and, at times, even exciting. Where is the music inspired by science that conveys these feelings?

You may disagree, or maybe I just haven’t heard the right music. What’s your favorite song about science?

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Only a Theory

With the recent debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, there has been a resurgence of people claiming that “evolution is just a theory.” This is something that really needs to stop. 

In common usage, the word “theory” means a guess. You might have a theory about who will play in the super bowl next year or what will happen later this season on American Horror Story. In this respect, your “theory” is as good as anybody else’s. This is not what we mean when we say “theory” as scientists.

In science, our level of certainty about an idea can be summed up with three words: speculation, hypothesis and theory.

A speculation is the lowest level of certainty. When we suspect that something is true but we haven’t done enough research on the topic to be confident in it, we use this word. This is like having a puzzle that is 10% completed and making a guess about what the missing pieces look like.

When a scientist forms a hypothesis, it means that they have learned everything or nearly everything that humans know about a subject, and they are confident in making a claim about something that is unknown. This is like having a puzzle that is completed but for a couple of pieces and making a claim about what the remaining pieces look like. My students will often define “hypothesis” as “an educated guess.” This is technically true, but it is not a particularly good definition because it implies a larger degree of uncertainty than there really is. While a particular hypothesis may not turn out to be correct, a scientist is confident enough in its accuracy to spend years of their life and tens of thousands of dollars determining whether or not it is true.

In scientific parlance, the word “theory” is synonymous with “fact.” It is an idea for which we have a great deal of evidence. A hypothesis can graduate to a theory once enough evidence is collected in support of it. Having a new theory is like adding a piece to a puzzle. When we know a new piece of information, it give us more insight into the things we do not yet know. It allows us to form new hypotheses that we couldn’t have before. So when someone says “x is only a theory,” they are saying “x is only a fact,” which doesn’t make much sense.

For reference, here are some ideas that are considered theories by scientists: The earth is spherical. The earth orbits the sun. General Relativity. Some diseases are caused by microorganisms. Plate tectonics. Electricity. The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution by natural selection. Of these, the theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the most strongly supported — about as well-supported as the theory of the heliocentric solar system. It is a benchmark against which we can compare our certainty in other ideas. When something is supported as well as evolutionary theory, we know we’ve got it in the bag.

But when something is a theory, doesn’t that mean it hasn’t been proven? In a sense, yes. Outside of mathematics, scientists do not use the word “proof.” This convention is to constantly remind ourselves that we are not finished learning about things and that there is always a chance, however slim it may be, that we are wrong about something. Within mathematics, a statement can be proven within certain, carefully-established bounds. Some mathematically-proven statements are called “theorems.” Math aside, “theory” means as close to proven as we’re willing to say.

So what is a law? Isn’t a law higher than a theory? Not at all. As it is used, one could define it as a robust and generalizable observation. Unlike with a theory, there is no demand that we understand how it works. For example, Kleiber’s Law is the observation that the body size and metabolic rate of animals are related through the function y = x^3/4. There are hypotheses to explain why this is true, but these explanations are not a part of Kleiber’s law. Despite what many people think, theories do not graduate into laws once we get enough evidence for them. Rather, when we do have laws, we need to develop theories to explain them.

Whenever someone is trying to convince you that a particular scientific idea is wrong by claiming that it is “only a theory,” they are either deliberately trying to mislead you, or they are profoundly ignorant of science. These are the only two options.


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