Tag Archives: The Elements (song)

A few minutes on the fabulousness of the periodic table of elements

I love the periodic table of elements and thought I was alone in my appreciation. I kept the secret close to me right into adulthood where I received quite a shock. It turns out I’m not alone and many, many others are just interested, if not downright obsessed.

In her Feb. 7, 2012 posting for the Guardian Science blogs, GrrlScientist profiles a new book about the periodic table of elements (The Periodic Table: A Very Short Introduction by University of California at Los Angeles lecturer and writer Eric Scerri). From the posting,

… we are introduced to an interesting cast of international characters, including physicists, chemists, geologists, teachers, tradesmen and nobleman, all who played a role in the discovery and evolution of the periodic table. Notably, we meet Scottish physician, William Prout, whose proposal that all matter was composed of hydrogen atoms motivated the scientists of the day to obtain ever more accurate weights for each atom in their quest to prove whether his hypothesis was correct. We meet Danish-American eccentric, Gustavus Hinrichs, who saw the connection between the frequencies of spectra emitted by the elements and the internal structures of their atoms. We also meet German physical chemist, Julius Lothar Meyer, who is considered by some historians to be the co-discoverer of the periodic table, along with the Russian scientist, Dimitri Mendeleev, who sketched out his periodic table on the back of an invitation to a local cheese factory.

This isn’t the only recent book about the periodic table of elements. Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World From the Periodic Table of the Elements published in 2010 was mentioned in my July 15, 2010 posting. In that posting I also mentioned and rhapsodized about a visual reworking of the periodic table of elements by Philip Stewart into something he called The Chemical Galaxy.

I see you can now purchase the poster through The Chemical Galaxy store but you can also order it from the Science Mall. At the time I purchased the poster, the Science Mall was the only option for someone in North America and I had a very good experience with them. Here’s what the poster looks like,

The Chemical Galaxy by Philip Stewart

Unfortunately, this image is too small to offer much detail but The Chemical Galaxy website does offer a larger version. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite convey the sheer gorgeousness of Stewart’s visualization.

For those who prefer a more musical approach, here’s Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) singing ‘The Elements’ song (originally written and performed by Tom Lehrer)

I look forward to reading the new book once I shoehorn it into my schedule. Who knows? Maybe I’ll finally write that suite of poems based on the elements in the periodic table.

Geek rap, Björk, and science communication

I came across a June 29, 2011 article in Physics Today [online] by Steve Corneliussen about ‘geek’ rap. From the Corneliussen article,

Science rap is no flash in the pan according to Dennis Overbye, the high-visibility New York Times science writer. This week he proclaimed that “‘geek rap’ … is becoming one of the most popular and vital forms of science communication.” Immediately he added: “Few exegeses of the Large Hadron Collider match Alpinekat’s ‘Large Hadron Rap’ for punch and rhythm, and Stephen Hawking’s robot voice and puckish wit have spawned a host of imitators, like M C Hawking, rapping about black holes and entropy.”

Poetry and/or music, in combination with science is not new. Take a few more recent examples, James Clerk Maxwell, in addition to his scientific accomplishments in the 19th century, was also a poet and Tom Lehrer (pianist and mathematician) set the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements to music (The Elements) in the 1950s.

One can stretch back further to De rerum natura, an epic poem about physics and Epicurean philosophy written by Lucretius in the first century BCE (before the common era). From the Wikipedia essay on De rerum natura,

The poem, written in dactylic hexameter, is divided into six books, and explores Epicurean physics through richly poetic language and metaphors. Lucretius presents the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna, “chance,” and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.

It’s good to see that rappers are keeping the traditions alive and reinterpreting them for modern audiences. Dennis Overbye, the New York Times science writer mentioned in the Corneliussen article, recently highlighted Baba Brinkman, a Vancouver-based rapper, (mentioned here a few times a list of those posts follows), who’s currently  performing his Rap Guide to Evolution at an off Broadway theatre. From Overbye’s June 27, 2011 article of Brinkman’s show,

Don’t sleep with mean people.

That’s a lesson some of us learn painfully, if at all, in regard to our personal happiness. That there could be a cosmic evolutionary angle to this thought had never occurred to me until I heard Baba Brinkman, a rap artist and Chaucer scholar, say it the other night. Think of it as the ultimate example of thinking globally and acting very, very locally. We are all in the process of recreating our species in our most intimate acts:

Don’t sleep with mean people, that’s the anthem

Please! Think about your granddaughters and grandsons

Don’t sleep with mean people, pretty or handsome

Mean people hold the gene pool for ransom.

Writing on NYTimes.com last year, Olivia Judson, the biologist and author, called the evolution rap show “one of the most astonishing, and brilliant, lectures on evolution I’ve ever seen.” On a humid night last week the crowd spilled out of the playhouse and down the streets of SoHo after the show, chatting about the technical and social aspects of natural selection.

Björk has taken her own approach to science, music, and, in her case, song with her new show Biophilia. From the July 1, 2011 article by David Robson for The New Scientist’s Culture Lab blog,

As the lights dimmed and we waited for Björk to mount the stage of the Victorian market hall, the last thing I expected to hear was a recording of the dulcet tones of David Attenborough, waxing lyrical about nature, music and technology.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. The show does, after all, take its name, Biophilia, from Edward O. Wilson’s theory about the instinctive bond between humankind and nature, which he claims is a necessary consequence of our evolutionary origins. And the Icelandic singer has made it clear that she is a life-long fan of the British naturalist. “When I was a kid, my rock star was David Attenborough,” she recently told Rolling Stone. “I’ve always been interested in science.”

And boy, did she manage to pack a dizzying amount of it into the show. There were songs about plate tectonics, galaxy formation, crystallisation, DNA and heredity, equilibrium, gravity and dark matter. Then there were the novel instruments, including four harps driven by 10-foot pendulums and a gigantic Tesla coil that sparked in time to the music. We’re told that the structures of her compositions, too, were inspired by scientific ideas – the beats to some of the songs were based on prime number sequences, for example.

While Baba’s rap is peer-reviewed, Björk’s work is aimed a little differently. As David Bruggeman (Pasco Phronesis) explains in his July 3, 2011 posting,

They [reviews of Biophilia] suggest that Björk is not even thinking of encroaching on Baba Brinkman or They Might Be Giants science music turf anytime soon.  While she shares their enthusiasm for science, expressing that enthusiasm, rather than explaining the concepts underneath it, seems to be the main science emphasis of the work.

Here’s a demonstration of the Tesla coil synth prior to a Biophilia performance in Campfield (ETA July 5, 2011: This is where Bjork premiered Biophilia June 27, 2011 at the Manchester International Festival, more details in July 5, 2011 note added after this  post),

There are more Biophilia-related video clips but this was one of the shorter ones.

As for the Baba Brinkman posts I mentioned earlier, here are the most relevant ones from the earliest to the latest,

Darwin theme: Rap about Darwin & evolutionary biology and Darwinism in quantum dots

Rapping science

Interview with Baba Brinkman who performs his Rap Guide to Evolution in Vancouver on Feb. 20, 2011

Performance, feedback, revision: Baba Brinkman’s Feb.20.11 performance

Baba Brinkman launches his new Lit Fuse record label website and a Vancouver debut performance of his Chaucer/Gilgamesh/Beowulf adaptation

2011 World Science Festival and a couple of Canucks

Prince Charles, evolution and Baba Brinkman

Here’s very recent news (from a July 4, 2011 email) about Baba’s CD,

First thing’s [sic] first, I have a new CD out! The Rap Guide to Evolution: Revised is a brand new 14-track album produced by Mr. Simmonds. It started out as a “remix” of the original RGE CD from a few years ago but soon took on a life of its own with all new music, new collaborations, and most of the lyrics re-written (performance, feedback, revision), plus three completely new tracks. We’ve been working on this album all year long and finally finished it last week. Click here to listen to the evolution of the rap guide, and download it Radiohead-style (pay what you like).

I like the fact that there’s a range of approaches to science communication, poetry, and music. I think there’s room for everybody.

ETA July 5, 2011: There’s a July 4, 2011 article by Simon Reynolds of The Guardian that offers a little more information about Biophilia and Björk (from the article),

Originally formulated by scientist Edward O Wilson, the biophilia hypothesis suggests that human beings have an innate affinity with the natural world – plants, animals or even the weather. Yet it’s not biophilia but good old-fashioned fandom that has drawn a small band of Björk obsessives to queue outside Manchester’s Campfield Market Hall since 10am this morning. Not that there’s anything old-fashioned about the woman they are here to see. Biophilia is the Icelandic singer’s new project – the word means “love of living things” – and promises to push the envelope so far you’ll need the Hubble telescope to see it.

A collection of journalists have already had a preview at a press conference in the Museum of Science and Industry over the road. Björk is absent, preparing for tonight’s live show, her first in the UK for over three years, which will open the Manchester international festival. Instead, artist and app developer Scott Snibbe, musicologist Nikki Dibben and project co-ordinator James Merry talk through Biophilia’s many layers. There will be an album in September, with an app to go with each of the 10 songs. There will be an education project, designed to teach children about nature, music and technology – some local kids will embark on it next week. There will be a documentary. And then there will be tonight’s show, performed in the round to a 2,000-strong crowd including journalists representing publications from New Scientist to the New York Times, as well as the diehard fans waiting outside.

There you have it.

Ununbium and ‘The Elements’ and an update of science policy doings in Canada and UK

A new element, ununbium, is being added to the periodic table. There’s more about it here on Nanowerk News. Seeing the media release this morning reminded me of Tom Lehrer’s song, ‘The Elements‘ so I searched and found an animated version of the song here. Just scroll down and pick your connection type (dial-up or broadband).

On the science policy front, there was an announcement that a UK parliamentary  Science and Technology Committee has been approved/reinstated last week on the BBC News (online)

The committee will be made up of the same members as the existing Innovation, Universities, Skills, and Science Committee (IUSS).

Some MPs recently raised concerns that government science policy would be marginalised in the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

I commented on the new department and reporting structure on my blog here earlier this month. This comes at a time when Canada’s Minister of State for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, seems to be fading out of the picture. You can read Rob Annan’s post about it here on ‘Don’t leave Canada behind’. As Rob points out, this comes on the heels of the SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humantities Research Council) situation regarding their approved funding for a joint Queen’s University and York University conference titled, ‘Israel/Palestine Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace‘. Goodyear apparently requested that in addition to the peer-review the proposal had already received before being approved that it be subjected to a second peer-review after the fact. There’s more here on Rob’s blog, starting June 10, 2009 and, for another viewpoint, you can check out Jacob T. Levy’s  blog here.

I got a comment from Andrew Maynard where he clarified a statement he made in his screencast and a few things about the Twitter science visuals that he offered in some of his latest postings. Thanks Andrew.

Yeah, that “classic” sort of crept into the screencast – by the time I had made ten botched attempts to record it, I guess the bubble charts were beginning to look a little old!

To be honest, I’m not sure how widespread they are. I used them here because it’s a convenient way to summarize data covering a large span – because the plotted area is related to the data being visualized, it is easier to compare very large with very small numbers.

In this way, I think the display offers some intuitive insight into what might be relevant. But I’m not convinced it provides much of an analytical insight. Which is one reason why it’s useful to have access to multiple visualizations I suspect. And probably more importantly, why I prefer to allow access to the root data.

My comments are in my June 23 and 24, 2009 postings and Andrew’s posts are here.

Friday, June 26, 2009, I got an update and other comments from Victor Jones (consultant and former chair of Nanotech BC) about Environment Canada’s plan to have Canadian businesses report on the nanomaterials they use in their products.

interesting summary on nanomaterials and yes the Canadian plan is working its way through the bureacracy. Similar issues of definitions and classifications make the effort far from simple. If ever there was a case of the devil in the small details – nano materials has it. Remember to to check out http://www.goodnanoguide.org for a community dedicated to prototcols for the safe handling of nanomaterials. For an intriguing look at this sub micro world check out http://www.gogetpapers.com/Papers/nanomaterials_lecture

Thanks Victor. I haven’t had a chance to check out Victor’s recommendations for other sources of info. but I will report back on them soon. If you are interested, there is a three part interview with Victor on this site, May 14, 15, and 19, 2009.