Trial Balloon

Science Meets Art

Posted at 6:00 AM on May 11, 2010 by Dale Connelly (31 Comments)
Filed under: Science

Today is the birthday of the late physicist Richard Feynman. (May 11th, 1918). He was one of the best known U.S. scientists, not a very reliable group for generating interest among the press. But he was a colorful character and an accomplished explainer. He was part of The Manhattan Project and the inquiry into the Challenger disaster. He won the Nobel Prize in 1965 and his name is on the Feynman Diagrams for explaining the behavior of subatomic particles.

And he played the bongos.

There are numerous Feynman videos available online. Here's a short one where he challenges the idea that artists can appreciate beauty more readily than scientists.

And here's an interesting clip that features Feynman along with astrophysicists Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson and "science guy" Bill Nye. It's part of a larger project called "Symphony for Science" led by a musician named John Boswell. Using sampling and auto-tune software, he takes the spoken comments of scientists and weaves their ideas into songs. Feynman is the first performer to appear in this video, playing the drums of course.

For people who love music and lyrics, packing information into a song is a great way to remember it. I'll never forget that the earth revolves at 900 miles an hour, thanks to Eric Idle and "The Galaxy Song". Of course it varies based on where you're standing - more like 1,000 miles per hour at the equator. That's the weakness of sung science - song lyrics demand an unrealistic level of simplicity.

Is there something you have trouble understanding that might make a great subject for an educational song?

Comments (31)

Welcome back, Dale. I'll need to reflect on the question. There is so much I don't understand that it is hard to know where to start.

Thanks for the great interviews Saturday. I think Peter is a fellow spirit: someone who steers his ship by epiphanies.

I could only make a request if I were sure you'd like it. Could you play the A & A Waltz sometime this morning. That's Peter as good as Peter gets.

Posted by Steve in Saint Paul | May 11, 2010 6:15 AM

Morning Heartlanders. Great start to the morning w/ a clip of Symphony for Science. I've seen a few of these before (too much time on mentalfloss) and I think they are fascinating.

I have never been able to wrap my brain around Fstops on my SLR camera... even after taking a photography class! Bigger number means smaller aperture (I think)? Since a class didn't help, maybe a nice science song would do it. Of course, I'd have to FIND my SLR, which, thanks to the digital age, is now in a drawer somewhere!

Posted by sherrilee | May 11, 2010 6:15 AM

Good morning all. My memory is always failing me,but it is usually things such as the names of people I know and there is no song to help with this except one I might write for myself. A song that might help me would be one that would help me remember the number of days in a month. I never know which months have 30 days and which ones have 31.

Posted by Jim | May 11, 2010 6:18 AM

immunology - T cells, B cells, killer cells, and now many many more things discovered to know. it's like outer space only it's inside of us. to me: unfathomable. so don't bother with a song :-)

welcome back, Dale! i'm off to a busy day.

Posted by barb in Blackhoof | May 11, 2010 6:20 AM

Sherrilee, not to worry, you can have the same problem with your DSLR. ;-)

There are a lot of things I don't understand, but I can't narrow it down this early in the day. Maybe something that would help me remember the particulars of IPv6.

Have a great day, everyone.

Posted by elinor | May 11, 2010 6:26 AM

Ooh, ooh, Jim... I've got a memory trick for you for the numbers of days in each month. Make your hand into a fist, knuckles up. Knuckle of your index finger if January (31 days), valley between index and middle finger is February (28). Knuckle of middle finger is March (31 days). Next valley is April (30). When you get to the knuckle on your pinky (July - 31), you do it again, but backwards, starting w/ your pinky, which is August (31). Knuckles are 31, valleys are 30 - except February, of course.

Posted by sherrilee | May 11, 2010 6:27 AM

organic chemistry--all of it--every exception in it. Organic chemistry!!!

Posted by Cly fr inorganic | May 11, 2010 6:48 AM

I would like to hear a song about the stock market, world finance, and just how and from whom governments borrow money and keep solvent.

Posted by Renee | May 11, 2010 7:23 AM

Greetings! Those are great videos -- I miss Carl Sagan -- he can put the wonder and excitement back into science.

One thing I would like to understand through song is financial stuff -- especially how supposedly smart (but apparently terribly greedy) people caused our country's economy to tank. All those over-leveraged financial instruments, hedge funds, credit default swaps and all other forms of fictional money that made up the house of cards on Wall Street.

Then maybe they could explain to me why they got bailed out (and not me and you), and why they're now making tons more money than before (unlike me and you). Just a simple explanation mind you ...

Posted by Joanne in Big Lake | May 11, 2010 7:31 AM

Pivot tables in Excel. If someone could explain those in song, I might figure them out. I've documented how to make them, and I still don't get it. Or why it is that whenever I need duct tape or WD-40 that I can't find the last roll or can I bought and I need to buy another...and then I find three when I don't need them.

I grew up in the generation that learned the Preamble (and lots of other cool stuff) from episodes of Schoolhouse Rock. I know I'm not the only one who still hums tunes to remember things like "We the People, in order to form a more perfect union..." For science, I think my fave of those was "Interplanet Janet." Got any Schoolhouse Rock you can play this morning, Dale?

Posted by Anna | May 11, 2010 7:46 AM

Thank you, Sherilee. I think I can remember that trick for recalling the number days in each month.

I agree with Clyde about the problems of memorizing organic chemistry information. I nearly flunked organic chemistry because I wasn't willing to memorize all the information needed to master the basics of that subject.

I still have nightmares about all those "hoops" that I had problems jumping through to complete my University education. The songs I would have needed to cover the things I needed to remember would have filled a very large number of CDs or, in those days, LPs.

Posted by Jim | May 11, 2010 7:47 AM

Feynman also studied drawing and wored as a cafe artisit for a bit.

Posted by Clyde | May 11, 2010 7:47 AM

Both of my kids have Schoolhouse Rock and Electric parts of Electric Company on DVD, my daughter for her kids who love then both.

Posted by Clyde | May 11, 2010 7:56 AM

This is alwasy a memory trip for me and will be for those old enough--names will not be named. I have a little office frigde which has to be de-frosted, not very often in low-humidity winter. I am washed with images of my mother every time I do it.

Posted by Clyde | May 11, 2010 8:04 AM

Calculus! 3rd year French! Why some places get rain and others have droughts! There's so MUCH I don't understand...

Jim: Besides Sherrilee's "knuckle method", I learned this poem in 3rd grade, and I'll bet we could could come up with a tune:

30 days hath September, April, June, and November,
All the rest have 31, save February
Which alone has 28,
And one day more we add to it
Each year in four.

Off to Iowa later today - have a nice rainy day, everyone. (IS everyone in the region getting a rainy day.)

Posted by Barbara in Robbinsdale | May 11, 2010 8:15 AM

In my cube, socks are a bit soggy. But Angela Ball has a very nice poem on Writer's Almanac today!

Posted by sherrilee | May 11, 2010 8:31 AM

HYere are 70 plus versions of the Month Poem--fun:

Posted by clyde | May 11, 2010 8:35 AM

Barbara in Robbinsdale - I learned a variant that same rhyme for remembering months. Still refer to it from time to time. (And Clyde, I have Schoolhouse Rock on DVD too - great fun.)

Hope everyone is able to be warm and dry today.

Thanks for the Schoolhouse Rock "Body Machine" Dale!

Posted by Anna | May 11, 2010 8:38 AM

sherrtillee--am I going to sound dumb asking why your socks are soggy?

Posted by Clyde | May 11, 2010 8:43 AM

Sherilee! LOVE the knuckle trick! I have always rememebered '30 days hath September...' verse but the knuckle idea is better I think!

Years ago a good friend of mine had twisted verses to 'Stormy Weather' and when I heard it this morning in honor of Lena Horne, I'm sorry but I thought of my friend and the verse "Don't know why I got lipstick on my fly, Stormy Weather."

I need song help with colors of tape marks on theater extension cords to designate length. I'm told it's the same as transistor color coding... but I never learned that either...

Nice rainy day but I haven't finished planting corn either... so a mixed blessing.

Posted by Ben | May 11, 2010 8:44 AM

Clyde... wet walk from house to car and then car to library (book due today) then car to office. Can't bring myself to put winter shoes back on, so am wearing socks with birkenstocks. One more nail in the "I'm so uncool" coffin that my teenager is surely building for me. Not a dumb question... most people who are bothering to weather a turtleneck and a sweater today would probably wear real shoes, not sandals!

Posted by sherrilee | May 11, 2010 8:53 AM

Hm. There are so many things to's really hard to focus on one. The first place I start is with the 4-block know/don't know matrix. Have you heard this one? There is 'we know what we know,' 'we know what we don't know,' 'we don't know what we know,' and 'we don't know what we don't know.' But, then this has to be qualified because several times when we think 'we know what we know,' it turns out to be false, then we have to move that back to 'we know what we don't know.' And then it spirals out of control in my brain and I just want to eat a box of Oreos but don't because they're bad for me.

Posted by That Guy in the Hat | May 11, 2010 9:15 AM

Hi Ben--the wiring color code is a famously dirty mnemonic.
sherrillee--I have wet pants, socks, shirt, jacket, etc. but I am prepared with stuff in my office. But I love riding in light rain.

Posted by Clyde | May 11, 2010 9:20 AM

Oh Clyde! Organic chemistry, the downfall of this potential physician. Thanks for the memories.

So much stuff might have been easier for me to learn, had someone told me the practical use to which it was supposed to be put. Try very hard to make those connections for the son and heir.

TGitH, Yes, absolutely-brain spinning out of control, except my drug of choice involves salt and grease-maybe a nice, unchallenging chick novel.

Posted by catherine | May 11, 2010 10:37 AM

Thanks, Dale and Mike, for Lake Baikal...and thank you, Dale, for the splendid and informative intro...totally suited to today's subject. Though I don't think all those details of 1/5th of the world's fresh water (et al) are in the song.

A few years ago we did a community theater production of Chekhov one acts. I looked and looked for a recording of Lake Baikal to use as intro, finally did find one though more recent than the Piantisky Chorus and Osipov Folk Orchestra. Still gorgeous.

Thanks again...happy wet Tuesday, y'all. (HOpe your socks are dry now, Sherrilee...I'm as uncool as you in my daily Birkies.

Posted by cynthia in mahtowa | May 11, 2010 11:33 AM

Listening again to Andar and throat singers w/Feynman on drums -- very cool. Reminds me of when I first started at Pillsbury many years ago I was at R&D working with the scientists who developed the food products. The very best top tier scientists (PhD's all) were all wildly creative as well. Very interesting bunch to work with -- a lot of fun. The best R&D scientists were an interesting combination of extreme intelligence in a particular area along with thinking outside the box and being imaginative and creative.

Posted by Joanne in Big Lake | May 11, 2010 11:48 AM

cynthia--I cannot get you a copy of the Lake Baikal song, but I can suggest many many CDs of that music, which is the music of my wife's childhood, before the Sandinavian half lowered the drama level of the music in her life. She plans to have it playing before her funeral. Easter music is absolutely the best in Russian Orthodox style, especially the choirs. A big moment in her life: her last living Russian aunt/uncle called het to apologize for how they treated her over the years and that he now recognizes that all believers are Christians not just the Orthodox. Which reminds:
DALE--did you catch requests from for a Bertie Wooseter fest of aunt stories?

Posted by Cly de Ruski | May 11, 2010 12:25 PM

Is tbis off-topic?
There is a news story widely printed or posted that digital copiers retain everything scanned on them in their memory. Since many people have used copiers to digitally moon someone else, that makes the copiers offically anal-retentive.

Posted by Cly de Derrierre | May 11, 2010 1:41 PM

Ha ha ha ha. Very funny Clyde!

Posted by sherrilee | May 11, 2010 1:57 PM

Thank you, Clyde.

It has been a long day and I needed that.

Posted by catherine | May 11, 2010 2:58 PM

i used the memoriy tricks i conjured up to memorize the countris of the world years ago. i'll bet the countries of africa particularly would make a good tune,
guy in the hat, love the matrix
clyde i will get you some abstract art of mine and my collection to see about breaking the gridlock

Posted by tim | May 12, 2010 5:59 AM

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