A Lasting Marriage Of Pop Music And Science

Cartoon scientists dancing. i
Cartoon scientists dancing.

Somewhere back in the late 1980s, when I was in graduate school, I listened to a lot of They Might Be Giants. And a lot means, well, a lot. I may have lost a girlfriend or two over them.

The hyper-clever lyrics, the punchy infectious pop-tune melodies, the accordion — it's a love or hate thing for many people. But along with collecting old blues harp classics (like I'm a King Bee by Slim Harpo), They Might Be Giants helped me get through the six-year marathon of joy, excitement, fear and loathing that is physics grad school.

One of the reasons for my devotion to the band is how deeply songwriters John Linnell and John Flansburgh got science. The background of their offbeat humor was filled with science references or knowing reflections on scientific concepts. Take their song "Particle Man" (which became famous for its Tiny Toons professional wrestling interpretation):

Particle man, particle man

Doing the things a particle can

What's he like? It's not important

Particle man

Is he a dot, or is he a speck?

When he's underwater does he get wet?

Or does the water get him instead?

Nobody knows, Particle man

As a card-carrying, fluid-dynamicist I've been reflecting on that line "does the water get him instead" for decades now.

But somehow over the years I lost track of TMBG. Maybe it was parenthood. Maybe it was pressures of being a young professor. Maybe it was Nirvana and Jay-Z. Somehow I stopped listening. But TMBG was still putting out music and, most importantly, started getting explicit about putting out music about science.

In 2009, the group released "Here Comes Science," a kids' album that does a pretty fine job of explaining some of the finer points of what science is and how it works. And it's not often that a kids' song starts off with a quote from philosopher of science Rudolf Carnap.

So, in the spirit of summer when we're supposed to take things just a bit less seriously (seriousness will catch up with us soon enough), I want to pass along two of TMBGs' science music videos. Here they are:

Science is Real


Put it to the Test


If you want, you can pass them along as well to any 10-year-old — or 40-year-old, for that matter — science lovers you might know.



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