On Aug. 6, 1974, Philippe Petit mesmerized the world by spending 45 minutes a quarter mile above the ground, walking a tightrope strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. When he finally came down and was promptly arrested, waiting reporters jammed microphones in his face and asked: "Why?"
Why had he done it? Years later, Petit would look back, laugh and say: "I did something magnificent and mysterious — there is no why."
I was reminded of Petit's perspective when I watched OK Go's new and thoroughly magnificent music video Upside Down & Inside Out. OK Go is an alternative rock band known for its up-tempo songs and whip-smart lyrics. But beyond the music, the band stands out for its award-winning videos. The band members (none of whom are dancers) often perform delightful yet complex choreography often with equally complex props. Most remarkably, these dazzling videos usually consist of single takes like in This Too Shall Pass, where the band inhabits a giant Rube Goldberg contraption. Everything has to all work all the way through or they start over again.
In Upside Down & Inside Out, OK Go takes its philosophy to the next level — and I mean that literally. Filming on a cosmonaut training jet, the video takes place high above the ground and (for the most part) fully weightless. And what was the result? I think Petit's words sum it up perfectly — something magnificent and mysterious.
Now as an astrophysicist, it's no surprise that I would love a music video featuring a weightless band. But my affection for this delightful piece of art — and it is exactly that — goes way beyond my affection for physics.
While we sometimes discuss the differences between art and science here at 13.7, what OK Go has demonstrated is a key point of overlap. The sheer effort, both human and technical, required to make the video was staggering. Each attempt to film the full "dance" required the plane to do eight arcs with 27 seconds of weightlessness in each arc (in the video you can see the places where weight returns as the arc is completed). Watching the various "How We Did It" videos is a lesson in dedication. You can watch as the flights begin taking a physical toll on the band — and the crew. As we are told, "Over the course of 21 flights we had about 58 unscheduled regurgitations." At one point, you can watch Damian Kulash, the lead singer, pass out as he gets on mark preparing for the next flight arc to begin.
So where is the connection to science?
It's in the fact that the band members were willing to go so far and accept no compromises (they could have just edited the best takes together) in their pursuit of something awesome.
Now, there's is a lot of science that is practical leading to better medicines or faster computers or more fuel efficient cars. But whether it's applied or "blue sky" research, on the ground floor all science can really be summed up in 10 words: "Did you see that? Was that cool or what?"
In the lab — theoretical calculation or computer simulation work — almost all scientists work so hard so they can get that all–important glimpse of something marvelous. We push ourselves to the limits of exhaustion, forgoing sleep and weekends and "a life" just for that moment. It could be seeing how a cell wall ripples as it divides or how an evaporating planet blows its atmosphere into twisting orbital arcs. What really motivates us is to watch as something new and unexpected is made visible. And in the service of that experience, there is only so much compromise or half-steps you can allow before the experience becomes a lie.
That is why so many people — researchers and nonscientists alike — are so taken by the fruits of science. It wakes you up. It leaves you amazed. It shows you something magnificent and mysterious about the world.
So to the members of OK Go, I can only say thank you for making art that has the same effect.
Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4