Tag Archives: Tim Blais

Of musical parodies, Despacito, and evolution

What great timing, I just found out about a musical science parody featuring evolution and biology and learned of the latest news about the study of evolution on one of the islands in the Galapagos (where Charles Darwin made some of his observations). Thanks to Stacey Johnson for her November 24, 2017 posting on the Signals blog for featuring Evo-Devo (Despacito Biology Parody), an A Capella Science music video from Tim Blais,

Now, for the latest regarding the Galapagos and evolution (from a November 24, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily),

The arrival 36 years ago of a strange bird to a remote island in the Galapagos archipelago has provided direct genetic evidence of a novel way in which new species arise.

In this week’s issue of the journal Science, researchers from Princeton University and Uppsala University in Sweden report that the newcomer belonging to one species mated with a member of another species resident on the island, giving rise to a new species that today consists of roughly 30 individuals.

The study comes from work conducted on Darwin’s finches, which live on the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The remote location has enabled researchers to study the evolution of biodiversity due to natural selection.

The direct observation of the origin of this new species occurred during field work carried out over the last four decades by B. Rosemary and Peter Grant, two scientists from Princeton, on the small island of Daphne Major.

A November 23, 2017 Princeton University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“The novelty of this study is that we can follow the emergence of new species in the wild,” said B. Rosemary Grant, a senior research biologist, emeritus, and a senior biologist in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “Through our work on Daphne Major, we were able to observe the pairing up of two birds from different species and then follow what happened to see how speciation occurred.”

In 1981, a graduate student working with the Grants on Daphne Major noticed the newcomer, a male that sang an unusual song and was much larger in body and beak size than the three resident species of birds on the island.

“We didn’t see him fly in from over the sea, but we noticed him shortly after he arrived. He was so different from the other birds that we knew he did not hatch from an egg on Daphne Major,” said Peter Grant, the Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology, Emeritus, and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, emeritus.

The researchers took a blood sample and released the bird, which later bred with a resident medium ground finch of the species Geospiz fortis, initiating a new lineage. The Grants and their research team followed the new “Big Bird lineage” for six generations, taking blood samples for use in genetic analysis.

In the current study, researchers from Uppsala University analyzed DNA collected from the parent birds and their offspring over the years. The investigators discovered that the original male parent was a large cactus finch of the species Geospiza conirostris from Española island, which is more than 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) to the southeast in the archipelago.

The remarkable distance meant that the male finch was not able to return home to mate with a member of his own species and so chose a mate from among the three species already on Daphne Major. This reproductive isolation is considered a critical step in the development of a new species when two separate species interbreed.

The offspring were also reproductively isolated because their song, which is used to attract mates, was unusual and failed to attract females from the resident species. The offspring also differed from the resident species in beak size and shape, which is a major cue for mate choice. As a result, the offspring mated with members of their own lineage, strengthening the development of the new species.

Researchers previously assumed that the formation of a new species takes a very long time, but in the Big Bird lineage it happened in just two generations, according to observations made by the Grants in the field in combination with the genetic studies.

All 18 species of Darwin’s finches derived from a single ancestral species that colonized the Galápagos about one to two million years ago. The finches have since diversified into different species, and changes in beak shape and size have allowed different species to utilize different food sources on the Galápagos. A critical requirement for speciation to occur through hybridization of two distinct species is that the new lineage must be ecologically competitive — that is, good at competing for food and other resources with the other species — and this has been the case for the Big Bird lineage.

“It is very striking that when we compare the size and shape of the Big Bird beaks with the beak morphologies of the other three species inhabiting Daphne Major, the Big Birds occupy their own niche in the beak morphology space,” said Sangeet Lamichhaney, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and the first author on the study. “Thus, the combination of gene variants contributed from the two interbreeding species in combination with natural selection led to the evolution of a beak morphology that was competitive and unique.”

The definition of a species has traditionally included the inability to produce fully fertile progeny from interbreeding species, as is the case for the horse and the donkey, for example. However, in recent years it has become clear that some closely related species, which normally avoid breeding with each other, do indeed produce offspring that can pass genes to subsequent generations. The authors of the study have previously reported that there has been a considerable amount of gene flow among species of Darwin’s finches over the last several thousands of years.

One of the most striking aspects of this study is that hybridization between two distinct species led to the development of a new lineage that after only two generations behaved as any other species of Darwin’s finches, explained Leif Andersson, a professor at Uppsala University who is also affiliated with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Texas A&M University. “A naturalist who came to Daphne Major without knowing that this lineage arose very recently would have recognized this lineage as one of the four species on the island. This clearly demonstrates the value of long-running field studies,” he said.

It is likely that new lineages like the Big Birds have originated many times during the evolution of Darwin’s finches, according to the authors. The majority of these lineages have gone extinct but some may have led to the evolution of contemporary species. “We have no indication about the long-term survival of the Big Bird lineage, but it has the potential to become a success, and it provides a beautiful example of one way in which speciation occurs,” said Andersson. “Charles Darwin would have been excited to read this paper.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Rapid hybrid speciation in Darwin’s finches by Sangeet Lamichhaney, Fan Han, Matthew T. Webster, Leif Andersson, B. Rosemary Grant, Peter R. Grant. Science 23 Nov 2017: eaao4593 DOI: 10.1126/science.aao4593

This paper is behind a paywall.

Happy weekend! And for those who love their Despacito, there’s this parody featuring three Italians in a small car (thanks again to Stacey Johnson’s blog posting),

Repurposing music from Broadway hit Hamilton to give a science perspective

Thanks to David Bruggeman’s July 27, 2016 posting for information about a piece from Tim Blais (A Capella Science).

Before getting to the video: The musical “Hamilton” is about Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States while Blais’ version, featuring a cast of YouTube purveyors of science (I recognized Baba Brinkman), is about  Sir William Rowan Hamilton, an extraordinary Irish physicist, astronomer, and mathematician.

I know I’ll need more than one viewing.

A selection of science songs for summer

Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI) has compiled a list of science songs and it includes a few Canadian surprises. Here’s more from the July 21, 2016 PI notice received via email.

Ah, summer.

School’s out, the outdoors beckon, and with every passing second a 4.5-billion-year-old nuclear fireball fuses 620 million tons of hydrogen so brightly you’ve gotta wear shades.

Who says you have to stop learning science over the summer?

All you need is the right soundtrack to your next road trip, backyard barbeque, or day at the beach.

Did we miss your favourite science song? Tweet us @Perimeter with the hashtag #SciencePlaylist.

You can find the list and accompanying videos on The Ultimate Science Playlist webpage on the PI website. Here are a few samples,

“History of Everything” – Barenaked Ladies (The Big Bang Theory theme)

You probably know this one as the theme song of The Big Bang Theory. But here’s something you might not know. The tune began as an improvised ditty Barenaked Ladies’ singer Ed Robertson performed one night in Los Angeles after reading Simon Singh’s book Big Bang: The Most Important Scientific Discovery of All Time and Why You Need to Know About It. Lo and behold, in the audience that night were Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, creators of The Big Bang Theory. The rest is history (of everything).

“Bohemian Gravity” – A Capella Science (Tim Blais)

Tim Blais, the one-man choir behind A Capella Science, is a master at conveying complex science in fun musical parodies. “Bohemian Gravity” is his most famous, but be sure to also check out our collaboration with him about gravitational waves, “LIGO: Feel That Space.”

“NaCl” – Kate and Anna McGarrigle

“NaCl” is a romantic tale of the courtship of a chlorine atom and a sodium atom, who marry and become sodium chloride. “Think of the love you eat,” sings Kate McGarrigle, “when you salt your meat.”

This is just a sampling. At this point, there are 15 science songs on the webpage. Surprisingly, rap is not represented. One other note, you’ll notice all of my samples are Canadian. (Sadly, I had other videos as well but every time I saved a draft I lost at least half or more. It seems the maximum allowed to me is three.).

Here are the others I wanted to include:

“Mandelbrot Set” – Jonathan Coulton

Singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton (JoCo, to fans) is arguably the patron saint of geek-pop, having penned the uber-catchy credits songs of the Portal games, as well as this loving tribute to a particular set of complex numbers that has a highly convoluted fractal boundary when plotted.

“Higgs Boson Sonification” – Traq 

CERN physicist Piotr Traczyk (a.k.a. Traq) “sonified” data from the experiment that uncovered the Higgs boson, turning the discovery into a high-energy metal riff.

“Why Does the Sun Shine?” – They Might Be Giants

Choosing just one song for this playlist by They Might Be Giants is a tricky task, since They Definitely Are Nerdy. But this one celebrates physics, chemistry, and astronomy while also being absurdly catchy, so it made the list. Honourable mention goes to their entire album for kids, Here Comes Science.

In any event, the PI list is a great introduction to science songs and The Ultimate Science Playlist includes embedded videos for all 15 of the songs selected so far. Happy Summer!

Music videos for teaching science and a Baba Brinkman update

I have two news bits concerning science and music.

Music videos and science education

Researchers in the US and New Zealand have published a study on how effective music videos are for teaching science. Hint: there are advantages but don’t expect perfection. From a May 25, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Does “edutainment” such as content-rich music videos have any place in the rapidly changing landscape of science education? A new study indicates that students can indeed learn serious science content from such videos.

The study, titled ‘Leveraging the power of music to improve science education’ and published by International Journal of Science Education, examined over 1,000 students in a three-part experiment, comparing learners’ understanding and engagement in response to 24 musical and non-musical science videos.

A May 25, 2016 Taylor & Francis (publishers) press release, which originated the news item, quickly gets to the point,

The central findings were that (1) across ages and genders, K-16 students who viewed music videos improved their scores on quizzes about content covered in the videos, and (2) students preferred music videos to non-musical videos covering equivalent content.  Additionally, the results hinted that videos with music might lead to superior long-term retention of the content.

“We tested most of these students outside of their normal classrooms,” commented lead author Greg Crowther, Ph.D., a lecturer at the University of Washington.  “The students were not forced by their teachers to watch these videos, and they didn’t have the spectre of a low course grade hanging over their heads.  Yet they clearly absorbed important information, which highlights the great potential of music to deliver key content in an appealing package.”

The study was inspired by the classroom experiences of Crowther and co-author Tom McFadden [emphasis mine], who teaches science at the Nueva School in California.  “Tom and I, along with many others, write songs for and with our students, and we’ve had a lot of fun doing that,” said Crowther.  “But rather than just assuming that this works, we wanted to see whether we could document learning gains in an objective way.”

The findings of this study have implications for teacher practitioners, policy-makers and researchers who are looking for innovative ways to improve science education.  “Music will always be a supplement to, rather than a substitute for, more traditional forms of teaching,” said Crowther.  “But teachers who want to connect with their students through music now have some additional data on their side.”

The paper is quite interesting (two of the studies were run in the US and one in New Zealand) and I notice that Don McFadden of the Science Rap Academy is one of the authors (more about him later); here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Leveraging the power of music to improve science education by Gregory J. Crowther, Tom McFadden, Jean S. Fleming, & Katie Davis.  International Journal of Science Education
Volume 38, Issue 1, 2016 pages 73-95. DOI: 10.1080/09500693.2015.1126001 Published online: 18 Jan 2016

This paper is open access. As I noted earlier, the research is promising but science music videos are not the answer to all science education woes.

One of my more recent pieces featuring Tom McFadden and his Science Rap Academy is this April 21, 2015 posting. The 2016 edition of the academy started in January 2016 according to David Bruggeman’s Jan. 27, 2016 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog. You can find the Science Rap Academy’s YouTube channel here and the playlist here.

Canadian science rappers and musicians

I promised the latest about Baba Brinkman and here it is (from a May 14, 2016 notice received via email,

Not many people know this, but Dylan Thomas [legendary Welsh poet] was one of my early influences as a poet and one of the reasons I was inspired to pursue versification as a career. Well now Literature Wales has commissioned me to write and record a new rap/poem in celebration of Dylan Day 2016 (today [May 14, 20160) which I dutifully did. You can watch the video here to check out what a hip-hop flow and a Thomas poem have in common.

In other news, I’ll be performing a couple of one-off show over the next few weeks. Rap Guide to Religion is on at NECSS in New York on May 15 (tomorrow) [Note: Link removed as the event date has now been passed] and Rap Guide to Evolution is at the Reason Rally in DC June 2nd [2016]. I’m also continuing with the off-Broadway run of Rap Guide to Climate Chaos, recording the climate chaos album and looking to my next round of writing and touring, so if you have ideas about venues I could play please send me a note.

You can find out more about Baba Brinkman (a Canadian rapper who has written and  performed many science raps and lives in New York) here.

There’s another Canadian who produces musical science videos, Tim Blais (physicist and Montréaler) who was most recently featured here in a Feb. 12, 2016 posting. You can find a selection of Blais’ videos on his A Capella Science channel on YouTube.

Sing a song of science for Valentine’s Day 2016

David Bruggeman has featured three science music videos in a Feb. 10, 2016 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: A link has been removed),

In advance of St. Valentine’s Day, Tim Blais has released another A Capella Science video.  Remembering how his view counts get stratospheric, he has used the music of Queen to teach us about love.

Blais is a Canadian from Montréal and his is the only one of the three I’m featuring here (go to David Bruggeman’s Feb. 10, 2016 posting for the latest Science Rap Academy video ‘Shocked Away’ and a video excerpt for adults from Late Night with Seth Myers; it’s about the four new elements added to the periodic table).

Now, for the Science of Love,

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Tim Blais and A Capella Science

Thanks to David Bruggeman’s July 16, 2014 ‘musical science’ posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog for information about another Canadian ‘science musician’. Tim Blais has been producing science music videos for almost two years now. His first video, posted on YouTube, in August 2012 featured an Adele tune ‘Rolling in the deep’ sung to lyrics featuring the Higgs Boson (‘Rolling in the Higgs’),

He shares the text of the lyrics (from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtItBX1l1VY&list=UUTev4RNBiu6lqtx8z1e87fQ),

There’s a collider under Geneva
Reaching new energies that we’ve never achieved before
Finally we can see with this machine
A brand new data peak at 125 GeV
See how gluons and vector bosons fuse
Muons and gamma rays emerge from something new
There’s a collider under Geneva
Making one particle that we’ve never seen before

The complex scalar
Elusive boson
Escaped detection by the LEP and Tevatron
The complex scalar
What is its purpose?
It’s got me thinking

We could have had a model (Particle breakthrough, at the LHC)
Without a scalar field (5-sigma result, could it be the Higgs)
But symmetry requires no mass (Particle breakthrough, at the LHC)
So we break it, with the Higgs (5-sigma result, could it be the Higgs)

Baby I have a theory to be told
The standard model used to discover our quantum world
SU(3), U(1), SU(2)’s our gauge
Make a transform and the equations shouldn’t change

The particles then must all be massless
Cause mass terms vary under gauge transformation
The one solution is spontaneous
Symmetry breaking

Roll your vacuum to minimum potential
Break your SU(2) down to massless modes
Into mass terms of gauge bosons they go
Fermions sink in like skiers into snow

Lyrics and arrangement by Tim Blais and A Capella Science
Original music by Adele

In a Sept. 17, 2012 article by Ethan Yang for The McGill Daily (University of McGill, Montréal, Québec) Blais describes his background and inspiration,

How does a master’s physics student create a Higgs boson-based parody of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” that goes viral and gets featured in popular science magazines and blogs? We sat down with Tim Blais to learn more about the personal experiences leading to his musical and scientific project, “A Capella Science”.

McGill Daily: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself: where you’re from, your childhood, and other experiences that in hindsight you think might have led you to where you are now?
Tim Blais: I grew up in a family of five in the little town of Hudson, Quebec, twenty minutes west of the island of Montreal. My childhood was pretty full of music; I started experimenting with the piano, figuring out songs my older siblings were playing, when I was about four, and soon got actual piano lessons. My mom also ran, and continues to run, our local church choir, so from the time I was three I was singing in front of people as well. Also at about three or four a kid in my preschool introduced me to Bill Nye the Science Guy, which became the only TV I watched for about six years. After kindergarten I didn’t go to school until Grade 10, but was homeschooled by my parents. We had a very multifaceted way of learning […] that I think allowed me to see the big picture of things without getting bogged down in the horrible little details that are often the stumbling block when you start learning something. That gave me a fascination with science that’s essentially carried me through a science DEC and one-and-a-half university degrees. But my parents have always been super cool about not pressuring us kids to be anything in particular, and now to show for it they’ve got an emerging rock star – my brother, Tom; a dedicated speech pathologist – my sister, Mary-Jane; and me, researcher in incomprehensible physics and recently popular internet fool. I think they did alright.

Since 2012, Blais has graduated with a masters in physics and is now devoted to a life as a musician (from a 2013 [?] posting on redefineschool.com),

Blais has just finished up his master’s degree program at McGill, and he says he’s putting academia aside for a while. “I’ve been in school all my life so I’m switching gears and being a musician this year!” he tweeted. And that career choice is just fine by McGill theoretical physicist Alex Maloney, Blais’ faculty adviser.

To bring us up-to-date with Blais, David has featured the latest A Capella Science music video titled: ‘Eminemium (Choose Yourself)’ in his July 16, 2014 ‘musical science’ posting on the Pasco Phronesis blog.

One last tidbit, Blais will be appearing at Calgary’s (Alberta) Beakerhead ‘festival’ (Sept. 10 – 14, 2014). Specifically, he will be at (from the TELUS Sept. 11, 2014 event page):

TELUS Spark Adults Only Night
September 11 [2014] @ 6:00 pm – 10:00 pm
[TELUS Spark Adults Only Night]

Mark your calendar for this special Beakerhead-themed adult night at TELUS Spark Science Centre. Meet the Festo Automation folks from Germany and see their mind-boggling biomechanical creatures up close. Are you also a fan of the internet sensation A Capella Science Bohemian Gravity? Meet the maker, Tim Blais, here in Calgary for Beakerhead.

This event is included with Admission and Membership. TOP TIP: Skip the queue with advance tickets. [go to TELUS event page to buy tickets]

You can find out more about A Capella Science on its Facebook page or via its Twitter feed. For more about Beakerhead events, go here.