Waterloo, Ontario’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics has taken a quick break from warping everyone’s minds each time they hold a conference on subjects as varied as “Does time exist?” or gravitational waves to put together a summer playlist of their favourite science-themed pop songs.
There are already plenty enough songs about money, and we’re all just about completely bored with songs about love, since the Beatles drained that well totally dry decades ago.
But what of science? Who will sing of the wonders inspired by the periodic table or the humbling inevitability of entropy?
The artists selected for Perimeter’s playlist, that’s who.
Rounding up a greatest hits list of songs about numbers, elements, gravity, and the inexplicable popularity of the Barenaked Ladies, the Perimeter playlist does its level best to provide their short list of block-rocking beats and space jams.
There’s no “She Blinded Me With Science” by Thomas Dolby (too obvious?) or “Weird Science” by Oingo Boingo (too ’80s?).
There is an admirable dose of Can-con in the form of the McGarrigle Sisters’ song about salt, “NaCl”, and of course Rush, who contribute a nine-minute ode to… we don’t really know, in their exquisitely boring three-movement 1980 rock opus “Natural Science”.
The folks at Perimeter may think they’ve given us a Unified Theory of Songs About Science, but just as it’s in the nature of physicists to argue about the nature of time (Does it exist? Maybe.), we thought we’d muddy the waters with a few suggestions of our own, adding some grit to this nerd party.
Check out the Perimeter Institute’s full playlist here. In the meantime, here are our additions.
Obviously, David Bowie ripped open a portal to a different plane of reality with his 1969 tune “Space Oddity”, which he closed again and took with him when he died this past January. His producer Tony Visconti dismissed “Space Oddity” as a novelty song and refused to participate in its making. Here’s perhaps the best version, other than by the Starman himself, performed by Chris Hadfield.
The Perimeter playlist does already include a Kate Bush song, “Pi”, but here’s another one from 1985, written from the perspective of Wilhelm Reich’s son, Peter, about their adventures on Orgonon farm, the family estate, playing with daddy’s rain-making machine, called the “cloudbuster”. The video features Donald Sutherland, and Kate as Peter.
Yes, this song is already on Perimeter’s list, but who can resist? It’s more than just an answer song to Tom Lehrer’s great “Elements” song, courtesy of Blackalicious in 2002, it’s “Chemical Calisthenics”.
More a paean to paranoia and life in the atomic age than an actual song about science, it’s tough to ignore the bouncy appeal of “E=MC2” by Big Audio Dynamite, otherwise known as BAD, featuring ex-Clash sneerer Mick Jones and current BBC DJ Don Letts. It’s difficult to forgive the fact that this song probably inspired Billy Joel’s crime against music “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, but science often produces unintended consequences, which no one person can control.
(Both David Bowie and Donald Sutherland also appear in this video, courtesy of clips from films that inspired Jones to write the song.)
Put your mind in neutral, and enjoy “Biology” by Girls Aloud.
Start thinking again right now, because it’s time for the punk art of Laurie Anderson’s “Big Science”.
Homer Simpson may have been referring to the Insane Clown Posse when he asked, “Rock stars. Is there anything they don’t know?” But really, this is probably the most honest song about yearning to understand how the universe works ever written by a group of Juggalos.
“Water, fire, air and dirt / Fucking magnets, how do they work?”
Why include “The Neutron Dance”? You might as well ask “Why Does the Sun Shine?” Enjoy the Pointer Sisters.
As Dieter used to say on Saturday Night Live, “Now is the time when we dance.” No one writes a Cold War ode to nuclear winter quite like Kraftwerk in their 1976 song “Radioactivity”, which as they observe in their lyrics was “discovered by Madame Curie”.
With shout-outs to “virtual reality”, penicillin and alkaline batteries, there aren’t many songs referencing science that are more obscure and incomprehensible than “Ego Trippin'” by the Ultramagnetic MC’s, which features Kool Keith throwing down lyrics like:
Usin’ frequencies and data, I am approximate
Leaving revolutions turning, emerging chemistry
With the precise implications, achieved, adversely
Explorating demonstrating, ruling, dominating
Igniting causing friction with nu-clear ALARMS
Separates competing biters from me, the scientist
There are a fair number of challengers for catchy songs about alienation in the industrial consumer society of the 1970s, but almost the entirety of “Germ Free Adolescents” by X-Ray Specs sounds like an ode to feeling as though life is somehow being manipulated by scientific and monetary interests larger than any individual’s ability to control their effect on our agency. Singer Poly Styrene asks the big questions in her group’s 1978 tune “Genetic Engineering”:
It’s so very tempting
Will biologists resist?
When he becomes the creator
Will he let us exist?
Let’s end on a little Can-con, with our own Rocket Man, William Shatner, delivering Bernie Taupin and Elton John’s immortal reply to Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, delivered awkwardly from the stage of a science fiction awards ceremony in 1978, with Shatner attempting to channel the Beat Poets by way of Mad Men and Rod McKuen. A patently absurd performance which has nevertheless accumulated a sizable cult following, and even some genuine love, over the decades.