February 21, 2011

Goodbye, Blogspot; hello, WordPress!

When we started this blog in April 2010, we weren't quite sure what we would do with it or how it would relate to the rest of the Sing About Science project. Ten months later, it's clear that the blog is integral to the project and something that we should keep writing. To give it an appearance that is more professional and more consistent with the rest of SingAboutScience.org, we've moved it to a new WordPress-based directory: http://www.singaboutscience.org/wp/.

If you've enjoyed reading the posts here at singaboutscience.blogspot.com, please update your feed readers, bookmarks, etc. Virtually all of the content posted here is now available at the new address, and future entries will be posted only to the new address.

February 18, 2011

Grammies for science songs, part 2

Well, They Might Be Giants' stellar Here Comes Science did not win the Grammy Award for Best Children's Album last weekend, and a bunch of scientists are pretty upset. In fact, the journal BioTechniques went so far as to create its own Best Lab Song of the Year category, select nominees, and appoint itself the judge of the nominees. I'm not sure this represents the peer review process at its best, but you are welcome to view the BioTechniques article ("And the Grammy for best lab song goes to...") and decide whether you agree with the selections.

February 17, 2011

Science song of the week: "Coral Reef" by Billy B

From Geophysical Research Letters via Science News comes the word that corals off the coast of Japan are moving northward, perhaps in response to the warming of the ocean.
The team, led by geographer Hiroya Yamano of the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Tsukuba, Japan, analyzed maps of corals from four time periods starting in the 1930s. They found that of nine common coral species, four had expanded northward, and two went as far as temperate waters. The study confirms what marine biologists and fishermen have speculated for years.

For some background information on choral reefs, we go to a live performance in which Billy B is supported by a coral group, er, choral group, of schoolchildren. If this song doesn't teach you the word "zooxanthellae," I don't know what will!

February 14, 2011

New additions to the database: Jonny Berliner and Doug Edmonds

Sing About Science's searchable database now includes over 3700 math and science songs, which seems like a lot. But does it include virtually all of the relevant songs out there? I doubt it. Just yesterday I discovered a couple of artists of whom I was not previously aware: Jonny Berliner and Doug Edmonds. Berliner is a musician with a knack for lines like, "With Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle you can be uncertain for sure." Edmonds is a junior high school teacher who has been written up in the TribLocal branch of the Chicago Tribune ("Singing science teacher attracts YouTube following").

I look forward to discovering even more singing scientists and adding them to the database. Suggestions are always welcome!

February 11, 2011

Scientists are like punk rockers (?)

Alison McCook notes certain parallels between the guitar-smashers and the gene-cloners.
"Punk ethos is typified by a passionate adherence to individualism, creativity and freedom of expression with no regard to established opinions," Bill Cuevas, biochemist at the biotech company Genencor and music director at the Stanford University radio station KZSU, tells The Scientist. "Good scientific discipline is also typified by such qualities, including inquisitiveness and curiosity, with no entrenchment to established beliefs."

...Importantly, punk is "about the freedom to express what you want to express," says Milo Aukerman, a plant researcher at DuPont and lead singer of legendary punk band The Descendents. In many ways, research is the same -- more so than in other professions, scientists can set their own schedules and decide what they want to study. "There is a certain freedom implied there," Aukerman adds.

Unfortunately, the article backs away from the possible conclusion that more punk rock music should be about science.
Of course, even if punk music and science share many elements, the comparison can be taken too far, says Aukerman. For instance, you don't see many punk musicians singing about science. "I will probably never ever write a song about DNA," he says.

Thanks to Joel Tetreault for pointing us toward this article.

February 10, 2011

One man's trash is another man's science song

Our featured science story of the week is Turning garbage into gas (from The Economist).
Appropriately tweaked, the destruction of organic materials (including paper and plastics) by plasma torches produces a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen called syngas. That, in turn, can be burned to generate electricity. Add in the value of the tipping fees that do not have to be paid if rubbish is simply vaporised, plus the fact that energy prices in general are rising, and plasma torches start to look like a plausible alternative to burial.

A science song that aligns fairly well with this story is "Making biogas is a gas, gas, gas" by T. H. Culhane. Note, however, the difference between syngas, discussed in the article, and biogas, discussed in the song. The gases produced are different -- syngas is carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2), while biogas usually consists mostly of methane (CH4) -- and they are produced by different processes, with biogas arising from the metabolism of living organisms such as bacteria.

February 9, 2011

Hey, I was on TV again!

Sorry for yet another bit of self-promotion, but here I am in "UW professor a mad scientist behind songs about science," a KING 5 TV piece that aired earlier tonight.

February 7, 2011

Another personal anecdote

On January 6th I gave a brief presentation -- "Global health, neglected diseases, and drug development" -- to students in Glacier Peak High School's biotechnology program. At the end of it I tacked on an a cappella rendition of a song about malaria written by my boss. A couple of weeks later I received a very nice thank-you card signed by 21 of the students. Although they only had space to write a sentence or two apiece, 14 of them mentioned the song!

Although we cannot conclude anything about my singing ability or the students' comprehension of the song lyrics, the song was obviously memorable. And if any of the students turn their attention to malaria again in the future, they may well recall the existence of this song, search for it on YouTube or my database, and perhaps digest the words and ponder their meaning. That's exactly the sort of informal learning that we want to encourage.

February 3, 2011

Antimatter hey, antimatter ho...

Jonathan Coulton, who we've mentioned before, is somewhat famous for his "Thing a Week" project, in which he recorded a new song every week for a year. A pretty strict schedule ... and yet downright lax compared to that of Jonathan Mann, who has been posting a new song to YouTube every single day for over two years running! His Song A Day #686 ("CERN Created and Held Anti-Matter") is our selection as this week's Science Song of the Week. Feel free to sing along with the chorus: "Antimatter hey, antimatter ho -- our model of the universe needs you, bro...."

Mann's song was chosen because it may serve as a fun entry point into a recent Science News article, "Sizing up the electron," which explains the connection between electrons and antimatter as follows.
[The electron] inspired the mathematical equation that first hinted at the existence of antimatter, the exotic, oppositely charged counterpart to ordinary matter.

Now the electron is poised to go one step further, by helping scientists understand why matter triumphed over antimatter in the early universe. In theory, the Big Bang should have created matter and antimatter in equal amounts, but if so they would have annihilated each other and left nothing behind.

Though the standard model of particle physics, the mathematical framework for explaining how stuff is held together, can't quite account for how matter beat out antimatter, some theories that go beyond the standard model do. By carefully measuring the shape of the electron, through a particular property known as the electric dipole moment, scientists think they can narrow those theories down to get at the one that best reflects reality.

"The electron EDM is one of the places where there should be a good chance of seeing some new phenomena that can't be explained in the standard model, and could in turn help to explain this matter-antimatter imbalance in the universe," says physicist David DeMille of Yale University.

February 1, 2011

I'm glad I have a boss who sings too

I got a rare call on my office phone this past Friday at about 4:30 PM. It was my boss, calling in from California. We chatted for a couple of minutes and then I said, "Look, I'm sorry but I have to go. We're, ah, making a music video about the lab's research."

I would have preferred not to cut off my boss with such a frivolous-sounding excuse, but felt safe in doing so. He himself has been known to sing about medicine in public. Besides, the video was sort of meant to celebrate the work being done by his group. In general terms, this entails the very early stages of drug development for infectious diseases. Like most biomedical research, it requires a constant influx of grant money ... which is why I called the song "Money 4 Drugz."

Many thanks to Ryan Choi, who directed the video, and everyone else who helped!

January 31, 2011

Zheng Lab enters the YouTube Top 10

Last June we made a list of the YouTube science/math song videos that had been seen by the most viewers. That list has been rendered obsolete by the release of Bad Project, the grad student nightmare set to music by Hui Zheng's lab at the Baylor College of Medicine. New rankings are below; let us know if we're missing any "platinum" songs. Note that #3, #5, #8, and #9 on the current list all belong to John Boswell's Symphony of Science.

1. Waking Up Is Hard To Do. 8,186,590 views as of 1-31-11. (4,566,200 views as of 6-16-10.)
2. Large Hadron Rap. 6,347,199 views as of 1-31-11. (5,888,305 views as of 6-16-10.)
3. A Glorious Dawn. 5,165,197 views as of 1-31-11. (3,824,241 views as of 6-16-11.)
4. The Elements. 1,992,228 views as of 1-31-11. (1,329,187 views as of 6-16-10.)
5. We Are All Connected. 2,927,577 views as of 1-31-11. (1,967,245 views as of 6-16-10.)
6. Chemical Love. 1,595,210 views as of 1-31-11. (961,327 views as of 6-16-10.)
7. Bad Project. 1,506,819 views as of 1-31-11. (Didn't exist as of 6-16-10.)
8. The Poetry Of Reality. 1,311,977 views as of 1-31-11.
9. Our Place In The Cosmos. 1,112,445 views as of 1-31-11.
10. Diagnosis Wenckebach. 1,134,013 views as of 1-31-11. (1,012,912 views as of 6-16-10.)
11. I Will Derive. 1,096,814 views as of 1-31-11. (883,882 views as of 6-16-10.)

January 28, 2011

Another variation on the art/science fusion theme

Most examples of science-inspired art that we've highlighted on this blog consist of individual scientists doing something artistic or individual artists making art about science. A neat article from the University of Washington highlights something a bit different: an exhibit of 36 artists, ALL of whom worked with scientists to create weather-related pieces.
Seattle artist Scott Schuldt worked with [UW atmospheric scientist Celia] Bitz, whose climate research focuses on the Arctic. Schuldt, who quit an engineering career in 2005 to concentrate on art, and Bitz created "The Melt," beadwork on a canvas anorak modeled after those worn by early Arctic explorers and based on Inuit designs. The anorak was sized to fit Bitz and the beadwork represents various aspects of her work in the Arctic.

"For me, the inspiration comes in seeing the focused and very important work that Cecilia is engaged in. It's just fascinating stuff," Schuldt said. "Scientists wear their work on their sleeves, so to speak, so it wasn't that big of an artistic jump to clothe a scientist in her own work."

...Such collaborations between artists and scientists can be beneficial to both, Bitz believes, but it also gives the viewer a different way of perceiving science.

"Visualizing science through art offers a way to communicate science on a different level than most of us experience from lectures or textbooks," she said. "Through art, scientists can share the beauty that inspires us along our journey to understand the natural world."

January 27, 2011

Science song of the week: arsenic-using bacteria revisited

Back on December 9th, we mentioned the controversial Science paper on a bacterium that can supposedly substitute arsenic for phosphorus in the structure of its DNA. The most relevant freely available song that I could find at the time was a DNA Replication Song that reviewed the structure of DNA.... But now there is at least one song that directly addresses the Wolfe-Simon paper: "GFAJ-1 Arsenic Blues" by Adrian Ebsary.

We at Sing About Science and Math have no official position on the correctness of the original research or this particular response to it (which seems mostly critical of the publicity blitz rather than the research itself). However, we do think that singing about the primary literature has great potential for increasing the public's awareness of this literature.

More interesting stuff from Adrian is coming soon at ScienceSounds.com (currently under construction).

January 25, 2011

Science + Art: more than the sum of the parts?

From physicist Chad Orzel's links dump comes a New York Times article of interest to fans of art/science fusion: "An infusion of science where the arts reign." The "Citizen Science" program basically immerses non-science majors in hands-on science work, but with some room for creative expression at the end....
While there is no final grade, there is a final project, and Ms. Batkin and six classmates came up with an idea that is pure Bard: a dance performance that illustrates how an influenza vaccine works. Students assumed the roles of the antigen, B cell, T cell and antibodies.

"We’re using rubber bands and bubbles to show the B cell alerting the T cell that there’s a foreign invader," Ms. Batkin said. "I’m narrating the process, but I am also the antibody at the end."

This sort of reminds me of a course at my alma mater, Williams College, taught by Professor of Mathematics Edward Burger. In "Exploring Creativity," students are challenged to convey core concepts of one discipline using the tools of another discipline. For example, as discussed in this Alumni Review article, students might be asked, "What is the fourth dimension? Write a two-sentence definition and then create an artistic representation of a four-dimensional object or of four-dimensional space."

What these courses and Wendy Silk's "Earth, Water, Science and Song" seem to have in common is a sense that there is meaning and value in the challenge of creatively expressing scientific and mathematical concepts. Arts-related assignments are given not because the students can't handle more traditional "hard-core" assignments, but because science and math can and should inspire singing and dancing and drawing.

January 20, 2011

You'll love this week's featured science song, thanks to dopamine

"Whether it's the Beatles or Beethoven, people like music for the same reason they like eating or having sex: It makes the brain release a chemical that gives pleasure, a new study says."

Thus begins Malcom Ritter's article (Study: Love music? Thank a substance in your brain) summarizing a study just published in Nature Neuroscience (Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music by Valorie Salimpoor et al.).

To complete the dopamine/music pleasure circuit, how about listening to a song about this particular neurotransmitter (as well as its cousin norepinephrine)? "Chemical Love" by Charlie McDonnell is sure to fire up those striatal neurons!

January 18, 2011

Billy Joel, Adjunct Professor of Fishery Sciences

Thanks to Prof. Kira Wennstrom of Shoreline Community College for pointing us to this super-cool activity: Downeaster Alexa: A Fishery Story (PDF file).

It was created in 1991 through a National Science Foundation grant to an Ohio State University team led by Victor J. Mayer and Rosanne W. Fortner. Its in-depth consideration of the lyrics of the Billy Joel song "The Downeaster 'Alexa'" (embedded below), and its connection of those lyrics to relevant data, offer a strong rebuke to anyone tempted to dismiss educational uses of science songs as superficial or frivolous.

January 13, 2011

Science song of the week: Tevatron requiem

Tuesday's Nature News announced, "Tevatron faces final curtain."
After much debate, officials at the US Department of Energy's Office of Science revealed this week that they have decided not to extend funding for the Tevatron, the proton–antiproton collider at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, by an additional three years. The decision means that the first glimpse of the long-predicted Higgs particle, thought to endow other particles with mass, will probably be achieved by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, Europe's particle-physics lab near Geneva in Switzerland.
Below is the YouTube video for "Particle Business" by rapper funky49 (a.k.a. Steven Rush). It does a nice job conveying that CERN's LHC and Fermilab's Tevatron have been in a high-stakes race to find evidence of the Higgs particle:
Tevatron, OG atom smasher
say hello to CERN’s party crasher, the
new "Lord of the Rings" LHC, hear me, this
be competitive collaboration baby...
rock stars of physics, particle business
smash matter, antimatter and witness
quarks, bottom to top they don’t stop
"where the Higgs at?" yo that’s their mark
where the Higgs at? where the Higgs at?
where the Higgs at?

January 6, 2011

One more "year-in-review" song, and then on to 2011 in earnest!

The Scientist has published several compilations of the year's top biology papers, including a top 7 in biochemistry and a top 5 for all of biology, both ranked by the Faculty of 1000. The key advances included two prized crystal structures: complex I of the bacterial electron transport chain, and the two subunits of the yeast ribosome. The most pertinent song I found was "The Structural Biology Rap" by Zach Powers (a.k.a. The Science Rapper), which gives an overview of pertinent techniques including protein expression and crystallography.

January 4, 2011

Sonification: transforming data into sounds

NPR reports on Lily Asquith's attempts to analyze LHC data by converting them into sounds in "Particle Pings: Sounds of the Large Hadron Collider."
[Asquith] thought about a heart monitor in a hospital; it turns the electrical data from your heart into sound.

"You don't have to watch the monitor because you can hear it without making any effort," she says. "Just a steady beep — you can quite easily detect if it starts going quicker or if it stops even for a second."

She wondered what would happen if she used music composition software to turn data from the collider into sound....

What she got isn't quite music, but sounds that are more out of this world — bells, beeps and clangs.

Right now, Asquith says, the sounds don't tell scientists very much. But she hopes that in the future, it could help them understand the data in new ways.

She says that in certain situations, it's much easier to use your ears than your eyes, particularly with something that's changing over time. Collider data do that.