Tag Archives: Carl Sagan

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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For All Mankind

Today we celebrate one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. On July 20, 1969 — 45 years ago today — Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon. It was the height of the cold war, and the United States poured a huge amount of effort into space exploration as a way of competing with the Soviet Union. The Soviets beat us at many milestones, but the success of our human missions to the moon won the space race soundly for the United States.

Although Armstrong and Aldrin were sent to the moon to beat the Soviets, the plaque they left behind reads, “We came in peace for all mankind.”

The Apollo 11 lunar plaque. Image from nasa.gov

“We came in peace for all mankind.”

It could have read, “We claim this land for the United States of America.”

Given the times, it could have read, “Screw you, commies.”

But it said “we came in peace for all mankind.” This was an accomplishment for the men who personally walked on the moon, but it was not just for those men. It was an accomplishment for the United States, but it was not just for the United States. It was an accomplishment for the human race. Though these men and the country they represented were raised up by this accomplishment, they raised up every human being along side them.

Earlier that year, on April 17, 1969, Dr. Robert Wilson (1914-2000), a nuclear scientist, appeared in front of a congressional committee to ask for money to build the “linac” particle accelerator at the National Accelerator Laboratory (now known as Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois. Senator John Pastore (D-RI) asked him, “Is there anything connected in the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?” Dr. Wilson responded that,

“It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with these things… Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about…It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.” [emphasis added]

Scientific discovery is not just a tool we use to invent products that improve our lives. The knowledge and discovery and exploration themselves improve our lives. Most people think that science can make us great through the technology that it leads to. It isn’t that this is untrue, but this is only part of the picture. Science makes us great because it is a great achievement of humans. The accomplishments of science enrich our lives in the same way that we are enriched by the accomplishments of great poets, great composers and great artists. We share in the pride of the accomplishments of our scientists and we appreciate the beauty and wonder of their works. Science can indeed help us build planes and bombs and rockets that allow us to defend our country, but the fact that we carry out scientific research is a part of what makes us great and worth defending.

In 1972, during the Apollo 17 mission — the last time anyone sent live people to the moon — astronauts took a picture of the Earth from orbit. Known as “The Blue Marble,” this is one of the most famous photographs ever taken.

The Blue Marble. Photo taken by the Apollo 17 crew. Image from wikipedia.org

In 1990, the Voyager 1 spacecraft  photographed the Earth from 3.7 billion miles away — 40 times the average distance between the Earth and our Sun. The Earth is visible only as a tiny dot. This photograph became known as “The Pale Blue Dot” and inspired a book by Carl Sagan of the same title.

Photograph of earth taken from the Voyager 1 spaceprobe. Image from wikipedia.org

On July 19, 2013, the Cassini spacecraft took a picture of Earth through the rings of Saturn. At the time of the photo, the people of Earth were encouraged to contemplate their place in the universe and smile for the camera. People all over the world took part.

 

Photograph from the Casini spaceprobe. Earth can be seen as a blue speck in the center right of the photograph, in between the rings of saturn. Image from wikipedia.org

These photographs and events represent to us the collective accomplishments of the human species. Why would people in all corners of the Earth look up and smile for a photograph being taken too far away for their faces to be seen? Because they felt connected. These photographs do not particularly serve any scientific purpose, and they were not the point of these missions, but the photographs allow people to feel connected to the accomplishments that the photographs represent.

Consider if we discover an intelligent alien civilization at some point in the future. We might exchange some technology with them, and that might improve our lives. But to think of it only in terms of technology is missing the point. The discovery that we as intelligent life are not alone in the universe would profoundly change us. It would be the greatest discovery in all of human history.

Neil Armstrong died two years ago, so he is not able to share in today’s celebration, but his surviving family recommends a way to celebrate him:

“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

I encourage you to go outside tonight and wink at the moon. Remember the accomplishments of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin 45 years ago, but also think of the collective scientific achievements of all humans throughout time.

 

 

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