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,
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.