Last week we had art analyzed by science, science informed by art, and art created accidentally in the lab. I want to start this week with another connection: science as an inspiration for art.
One of the major purposes of art—if it needs a purpose—is to explain the world. Science tells us how it works, but art interprets those findings emotionally. How should I think about this? How does it affect my life? Other times, art simply translates, talking about the most interesting findings in a more entertaining way than even the most well-written journal article can manage.
But it’s better to illustrate than explain. I harbor a particular fondness for science-inspired music. Some songs are explanatory and some interpretive. Some take their subject literally, while others use it as a metaphor. For the list below, I’ve tried to follow a couple of rules:
-No songs specifically created to be teaching tools. There are a million of these, and some have artistic value in their own right, and some… probably retain a touch of educational value in spite of themselves. But I wanted songs that were inspired by science rather than required by it.
-A limited number of songs from any one genre or artist. A limited number of songs about any one science. If you saw my music collection, you’d understand that this rule is necessary to avoid The Post That Never Ends.
Starting with my own field, I love Dar Williams’ Press the Buzzer. If ever a psychology experiment was created to inspire folk singers, it was the Milgram Shock Study. The song, like the experiment, is about the costs of blindly following authority, both to others and to one’s own conscience. She gets the central details of the study right, but I always twitch at the end. “Do you know what a fascist is?” may scan, but doesn’t belong in any self-respecting debriefing session!
Another famous psychology study is Pavlov’s discovery of classical conditioning in dogs. They Might Be Giants use this in Dinner Bell as a symbol for… whatever early TMBG songs are usually symbolic of. It’s an awesome song, regardless.
If you know They Might Be Giants, you’re now wondering why I didn’t mention The Sun instead, which contains actual scientifically accurate details. See my first rule—Here Comes Science may be the best educational album ever, but it was created specifically to teach. Besides, I’d only just gotten it out of my head when you brought it up. “The sun is a mass of incandescent gas, a gigantic nuclear furnace…”
If we’re looking for astronomy songs that do follow the rules, Jonathan Coulton’s I’m Your Moon is a good place to start. It’s a love song from Charon to Pluto. I think the de-planetizing of Pluto was entirely justified, but this song makes me cry. Don’t even say it. Holst is on my side; his famous symphony, The Planets, only goes up to Neptune. Eighty-three years later, Colin Matthews snuck Pluto in, only to be contradicted by the International Astronomical Union in 2006.
Spreading beyond the solar system, both Monty Python’s Galaxy Song and Barenaked Ladies The History of Everything (song starts 40 seconds in) are more properly descriptive from a scientific standpoint. In spite of the title, though, don’t count on the latter for the order of events. “The bipeds stood up straight, the dinosaurs all met their fate…” Actually, there were bipedal dinosaurs. Not the first thing most people think of, though.
The floor is open to discussion. What have I left out? (Nothing wrong with The Comment Thread That Never Ends.) Do you prefer the more poetic songs, or the more descriptive ones? And why are there so few good songs about biochemistry?