Kirt's Cogitations™ #244
Science in Music
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Cog·i·ta·tion [koj-i-tey'-shun] – noun: Concerted
reflection; meditation; contemplation.
Kirt [kert] – proper noun: RF Cafe webmaster.
Science in Music
If you are not in the habit of listening closely to the words of songs, you could easily miss the the fact that many make passing mention of topics on science and mathematics, while others integrate it as the primary theme. There are a lot of songs written and produced by people whose primary vocation is in the sciences; their songs are a secondary "hobby" type of endeavor - often with a touch of humor. Other songs are created by mainstream popular groups and happen to integrate themes of science, mathematics, engineering, etc.
One of the earliest examples I can recall noticing was produced by the Moody Blues - "The Word." At the time, I did not fully appreciate the profoundness of the lyrics in terms of how they described the electromagnetic spectrum in its entirety, but an examination of the lyrics (below) reveals the profundity of the words.
Now, I realize that the writer might have unintentionally stumbled upon this reality with a little help from an illicit drug, particularly given some of the content (like "the word," which is, as it turns out, "om" - also spelled aum). Nevertheless, he deserves credit for having arrived at the theme.
Here are the lyrics (copyrights acknowledged for all):
This garden universe vibrates complete.
Some we get a sound so sweet.
Vibrations reach on up to become light,
And then thru gamma, out of sight.
Between the eyes and ears there lay,
The sounds of color and the light of a sigh.
And to hear the sun, what a thing to believe.
But its all around if we could but perceive.
To know ultra-violet, infra-red and x-rays,
Beauty to find in so many ways.
Two notes of the chord, that's our fluoroscope.
But to reach the chord is our life's hope.
And to name the chord is important to some.
So they give a word, and the word is om.
Another song that comes to mind is "Spirit," by John Denver. As a life-long amateur astronomer, I have to admit to nearly getting emotional when listening to the words (real men don't get "emotional," though). Anyone who has sat for hours under a crystal clear, star-filled sky, peering through binoculars or a telescope, can relate (well, real men don't "relate" either). John Denver was a committed naturalist who was an accomplished astronomer and pilot (up until the point he killed himself in a homebuilt airplane, that is).
His spirit joined and so was formed
Ten thousand years ago
Between the swan and Hercules
Where even dark clouds glow
To live with grace, to ride the swell
To yet be strong of will
To love the wind, to learn its song
And empty space to fill
Apollo taught me to rhyme
Orpheus taught me to play
Andromeda cast down her sign
And Vega lights my way
Smoke rings in a galaxy
An endless flight through time
Lyra gave her harp to him
And left him free to climb
A winters journey from the moon
To reach the summer sun
To rise again, to sing for you
A song that's yet unsung
If you have a subscription to a music service such as Yahoo! Music Jukebox, I invite you to look up these songs and play them.
Some artists set out specifically to write songs with science themes. Martin Rowe, a name very familiar to readers of Test & Measurement magazine, has written and produced a handful of test engineering related songs in the last few years, including "Electrical Heroes," "The Measurement Blues," and "The Lab in the Corner." Click on the icon to listen to them. Rumor has it he is up for a Grammy Award (originally called the Gramophone Awards) in the Best New Engineering Song category as well as the Best New Male Engineer Vocalist category. OK, I just started that rumor.
When Pluto was dissed and demoted to non-planet status a couple years ago, radio host and comedian Dave Ross' song entitled, "Ex-Planet #9" became very popular, and was played often on radio shows (I even linked to it back then).
Such talent is seemingly endless. Greg Crowther, a Research Scientist in the Division of Allergy & Infectious Diseases the University of Washington, is not satisfied with peering all day through a microscope at nasty body infecting bugs. He has compiled quite a repertoire of science related songs like "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Chemists," "I Love The Lab," and "The Ballad Of Roy G. Biv." FYI, Roy G. Biv is one of the mnemonics that non-engineers to recall the color spectrum, akin to the resistor color code mnemonics we use - ashamedly, the one I was taught way back in high school electrical class - by the teacher - was Bad Boys Rape Our Young Girls, But Violet Gives Willingly (the i in Biv is for Indigo). But then I digress.
Other professors and teachers, like Dr. Alan Marscher of Boston College's astronomy and astrophysics department, have written and performed songs specifically for their students, as a way to motivate the class. "Relatively Wierd" is about - you guessed it - relativity. "The Fall of Ancient Science" tells of the uprooting of ancient beliefs based on new scientific evidence.
In my Chemistry I college class, I distinctly recall my professor standing in front of that class and shamelessly singing out, "Oh my gracious, goodness me, PV equals nRT," (to the tune of the Nestle's chocolate ditty) as a way to remember the Ideal Gas Law. Obviously, it worked. I shall not sing it for you.
The Chromatics, as the name might suggest, is a group that produces many science themed songs. "Doppler Shifting," "Sun Song - 'The sun is a big ball of gas, and it's 99% of the solar system mass...'," and "Habitable Zone" are A[stro]Cappella renditions. Sky & Telescope magazine says: "An astronomy class set to music."
Here is a song entitled, "Maxwell's Equations." In it, singer Steve Kalafut sets new words to the tune of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," which was originally performed by The Beatles. Some of the lyrics:
B-field density magnetic propensity
Maxwell stands with Gauss
Faraday the law of induction, oh-oh-oh-oh
Then there's Ampere's law, now my nerves are getting raw
All these I must learn (These things you must learn)
A good grade I must earn for my mind to grow-oh-oh-oh
And if I ever figure them out
It will not be too soon
If you have never heard Tom Lehrer's famous "Elements Song" - and even if you have - you will want to click on the icon to the left to see the excellent video rendition. Lyrics are by Tom Lehrer, with music by Sir Arthur Sullivan, put in video format by Mike Stanfill. Amazon sells a CD set of science songs by Mr. Lehrer.
"Energy Eigenstates," by Walter F. Smith, is sort of an ode to wave functions.
Take a wavefunction, any wavefunction –
You can synthesize it out of energy eigenstates!
Why, might you ask, should I do this task?
Relax, and I will sing to you of energy eigenstates!
No thinking hard! Let down your guard!
Once I have sang of it, you’ll get the hang of it!
Stop feeling queasy – it’s really easy.
I’ll tell you all about their traits!
…My favorite functions, energy eigenstates!
A Google search will turn up hundreds - maybe thousands - of examples for your entertainment delight. In fact, just clicking on many of the links in this cogitation will give you the top level domains of sites that have other songs posted. Here is just one webpage that lists about 250 titles - MASSIVE (Math And Science Song Information, Viewable Everywhere).
Maybe you can integrate one of the songs into the introduction of your next presentation. That will set the mood better than any lame joke that you might try to pull off ;-)
Do you have other examples of science themes in music?