Turning Science Into Song

GuitarWell-done films about complicated and sometimes off-putting subjects—Searching for Bobby Fischer (chess), A Beautiful Mind (advanced mathematics), The Class (the French)—often manage to convey the essence of the central topic without confusing the viewer or turning the theater into a classroom.

UT has built on that stylistic concept through a unique program in which songwriters created original songs about scientific themes, with the goal of using these songs to communicate scientific concepts to the public in a way that’s more entertaining than draining.

From November 2010 to June 2011, UT’s National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Systems (NIMBioS) conducted a residency program that brought professional singer-songwriters to campus to create songs whose lyrics describe some facet of scientific work, such as fractals, ecology, or climate change. Each month one artist was awarded a $3,000 stipend to complete a four-week residency, during which the artist was expected to create at least two songs. The musicians did not need to have a scientific background, though knowledge of science was a plus.

“The songwriter program was created to bring musicians and scientists together in a new and innovative way to popularize science and communicate to the public through music, through songs we hoped were about scientists and the work they do,” says Catherine Crawley, NIMBioS communications coordinator.

Four musicians were selected to participate in the program: RB Morris, Kay Stanton, Timothy Sellers, and Jay Clark. The songs encompass a range of genres and topics; Stanton’s “Patterns” channels Jefferson Airplane to explain the complexity of fractals and recurring patterns in nature, and Clark’s bluegrass-influenced “Sexual Selection” explains evolutionary selection with lyrics like “It’s not about hooking up; it’s about spreading your genes.”

The songwriters were required to be on campus at the NIMBioS offices at least three days per week so they could meet with faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and other scientists to discuss scientific research and concepts. Song copyrights are shared by the artist and the university, and all of the songs have been made publicly available.

We wanted the creativity of the songwriters to come through, and to let them choose whatever topic they wanted to write about. We hoped the songs would communicate and inspire people, rather than be instructional tools.

The songwriter project was created by NIMBioS Director Louis Gross, who was named a James R. Cox University Professor in 2008, an award that provides each recipient with $25,000 over three years. Gross decided to devote some of this funding to the creation of a project that would pair music with science, because music was an area that Cox, who helped establish the Cox Auditorium, was passionate about. The works to be created through the program were meant to entertain, communicate scientific ideas to non-scientists, and spark public interest in science and math. Outside of these general parameters, there were no specific topics the musicians had to address.

“We wanted the creativity of the songwriters to come through, and to let them choose whatever topic they wanted to write about. We hoped the songs would communicate and inspire people, rather than be instructional tools,” Crawley says. She adds that the project was also a learning experience for science faculty members, who had to look at their ability to explain their work to non-scientists.

Morris, a singer and performer who lives in the Knoxville area, was the first recipient of the residency and produced three songs during his tenure. One song is a vaguely techno creation that contained lyrics inspired by NIMBioS brochures and other materials. The second involved adjusting a poem he had written about various systems and turning it into music. The third, called “Science for the People,” is about the ways in which people use incomprehensible technologies for basic tasks in everyday life. Morris describes the third song as “not quite a talking blues song” and says he plays it often when he performs live.

Morris says that meeting with the scientists and listening to their lectures and discussions was one of the most interesting parts of the process.

“I learned more about science, obviously, but also about how there’s a wave in the nation and, to some degree, in the world of combining science with the arts. I discovered a lot more people were aware of it than me. That’s a big deal,” Morris says.

Crawley adds that the model of pairing the sciences with the arts can be adapted to a variety of media, as it has with music and film.

“Any way that you can reach audiences through different channels would be beneficial,” she says. “You can reach some people through music, some through art, and some through literature. Using a variety of ways to communicate the importance of science and the passion scientists have for their work is essential.”

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