December 30, 2010

Science song of the week, or the year, or whatever

'Tis the season for end-of-year summaries. has a ranked list of the top ten physics breakthroughs of 2010, including this entry:

3rd place: Quantum effects seen in a visible object

In what is an important step towards testing Schrodinger's cat paradox, physicists at the University of California, Santa Barbara have bagged third place in our top 10 by observing true quantum behaviour in a macroscopic object big enough to be seen with the naked eye. Andrew Cleland and crew reduced the amplitude of the vibrations in a resonator by cooling it down to below 0.1 K. They were then able to create a superposition state of the resonator where they simultaneously had an excitation in the resonator and no excitation in the resonator. "This is analogous to Schrödinger's cat being dead and alive at the same time," says Cleland. This is the first time this feat has been achieved and it could shed light on the mysterious boundaries between the classical and quantum worlds.

To remind us non-physicists of the basics of Schrodinger's cat, we turn once again to Mark Rosengarten. His song "Schodinger's Cat Strikes Back" explains the paradox:

Of course, if you only play the song a single time without doing any additional reading, you might feel that the concept has been simultaneously explained and not explained. Quantum physics can be like that....

December 23, 2010

Science Song of the Week: "Silent Night (for the cosmically inclined)"

This week we take a break from the news-of-the-week format to celebrate the holidays ... in a scientifically correct manner, of course! The song below is described by its writer, Connie Barlow, as a "traditional Christmas song rewritten to celebrate the scientific fact that we are made of stardust."

December 16, 2010

Science song of the week and "teaching the controversy"

The past week's science-related news stories included much coverage of the Cancun Climate Summit convened by the United Nations. The tone of this coverage varied widely, with many liberal sources stressing the urgency of the global warming problem and some conservative ones questioning whether there is a problem at all.

If you look for songs about global warming, you'll find a similar range of views. One that is highly critical of the scientific support for global warming is "Hide the Decline," by a group called Minnesotans For Global Warming.

If I were teaching a class about climate change, I might show a video like this one and then ask students to do some further reading at websites such as Remember that, in an educational context, songs do not have to be used simply for ramming textbook facts down people's throats; they can serve as jumping-off points for discussion. A good discussion starter does not have to represent a scientific consensus; why not start with the "controversy" and then examine the evidence in more detail?

December 12, 2010

MASSIVE's long and winding road

Back in August, I wrote of my intent to get my MASSIVE (Math And Science Song Information, Viewable Everywhere) database up to date after three years of inactivity. I'm pleased to report that MASSIVE now includes many additional songs, pushing the total above 3500, as well as some new search options. For example, it should now be easier to find songs that are parodies of popular hits. To find scientific parodies of "YMCA," you could enter "YMCA" in the "Song Template" box of the Find Songs page, or you could enter a writer of the original song (Henri Belolo, Jacques Morali, or Victor Willis) in the "Writer" box. These searches aren't perfect -- not all song parodies have been labeled as such -- but they turn up some interesting results. While nobody thinks of John Lennon or Paul McCartney as science enthusiasts, if you do a search for songs co-written by Lennon or McCartney you'll find a host of science songs (15, at present) based on Beatles tunes.

December 9, 2010

Science song of the week: the structure of DNA

Continuing with the new, newsier format introduced last week, we note the considerable media buzz concerning the NASA research by Felisa Wolfe-Simon et al. that was just published (online) by Science: A bacterium that can grow by using arsenic instead of phosphorus. The central claim of this paper is that, when growing in a high-arsenic, phosphate-free environment, a bacterial strain known as GFAJ-1 can substitute arsenate (AsO43-) for phosphate (PO43-). This claim has been hotly disputed by prominent scientists, but if it were true, the standard textbook explanations and diagrams of nucleic acids having a "sugar-phosphate backbone" would not necessarily apply to all life.

At this point, casual biology students and scientifically curious adults may be thinking, "Right.... Now what does that sugar-phosphate backbone look like, again?" Most DNA songs focus on the hydrogen bonding between complementary bases, but here's one (performed by two high school teachers) that shows you the backbone as well. Bonus points for using the word "phosphodiester"!

December 3, 2010

A Grammy for science songs?!

Congratulations to They Might Be Giants, whose album Here Comes Science has been nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of "Best Musical Album for Children." (Other nominees include Jungle Gym by Justin Roberts, Sunny Days by Battersby Duo, Tomorrow's Children by Pete Seeger With The Rivertown Kids And Friends, and Weird Things Are Everywhere! by Judy Pancoast.) Could this be the first time an album devoted entirely to science has been nominated? I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised....

December 2, 2010

Science Song of the Week -- new, newsier format!

Up to now, this Science Song of the Week series has lacked any real cohesion. That isn't necessarily a problem, but a conversation with Kate and Wendy about the future of the Sing About Science project led to the idea that we could work harder to connect songs to current science news stories for which the songs may provide context and background. Starting this week, my SSotW plan is to pair a news story with a song that is at least loosely related to it.

Our topic for this week? Stem cells!

Laura Ungar of the Washington Post reports that Stem cells in fat may help repair damaged hearts. And why do so many people study stem cells, again? Tufts University professor Jonathan Garlick "breaks it down" for us.....