Put science to music and you’ve got a great teaching tool. The alternative rock band They Might be Giants (TMBG) already has this figured out. Their latest album, “Here Comes Science,” delves into biology, physics, paleontology, evolution, astronomy, chemistry and anatomy.
Ira Flatow interviews the two core musicians, John Flansburgh and John Linnell, in their first appearance on NPR’s Science Friday. Flansburgh and Linnell have created a plethora of education-oriented music since they joined forces in Brooklyn in 1982.
The Science Friday broadcast opens with the album’s first song, “Science is Real.” This tune tackles the scientific method, from forming a hypothesis to testing it to proving (or disproving) it.
“Science is Real” concludes with the following sentiment:
And when a theory emerges
Consistent with the facts
The proof is with science
The truth is with science
Once the recorded clip ends, Flatow plays devil’s advocate, or rather science’s adversary. What about the people who contest that scientific theories could ever be truth? he asks. (Read: evolution, global warming, big bang theory.) Flansburgh and Linnell’s counter-argument: yeah, well, sorry folks, but that’s how science works. Science is real. Believe it. Flatow agrees. So do I.
The duo performs “Meet the Elements” to introduce some of the more well-known elements and their uses. A few lines from this ditty point out that the noble gas helium fills balloons to make them float, the ubiquitous carbon is in both coal and diamond, and the metal iron forms rust when oxygen strikes it.
Even elephants make an appearance in “Meet the Elements.” Why? Because they’re made of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen. All living creatures require those four elements to sustain life. (As a side note, you’ll see these four elements referenced in my Glowing bananas post.)
“If this [song] had existed my freshman year of high school, it would have been a godsend for my grades,” the band tells Flatow.
Ira Flatow prefers TMBG’s version of this song to Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements.” Lehrer, a mathematician, teacher, singer and songwriter, crafted clever songs earlier in his career. This particular one is to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Major-General’s Song.” Both versions expose us to the periodic table of the elements, but I’m a fan of Lehrer’s alliteration and catchy tune.
Inspiration for the Giants’ new album came from their tune, “Why Does the Sun Shine?,” in which the band sings how the sun is a mass of incandescent gas. After popularization of the song, the band members discovered that the sun is, in fact, not incandescent gas, but rather super-excited gas, or plasma. Their defense: “This whole fact-checking thing is very difficult for a rock band.”
The result is “Why Does the Sun Really Shine?,” in which TMBG explains that the sun is miasma of incandescent plasma. What followed was an entire album of science songs. Cool. Previous albums of theirs include an entire album about the alphabet, “Here Come the ABCs,” and, the natural next album, “Here Come the 123s.”
TMBG teamed with artists to bring science to life not only in an auditory context, but also visually. An animated video accompanies each song on “Here Comes Science.” I love the paleontologist video. Dinosaur bones, fossils and extinction, oh my!