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Rocking the physics message

By Nick Thomas

John Flansburgh and John Linnell from They Might Be Giants (Courtesy: Jayme Thornton)

If you are in London or Cambridge this weekend then you might want to pay a visit to the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday or the University of Cambridge’s Babbage Lecture Theatre on Sunday to see the US alternative rock band They Might Be Giants perform to their legions of loyal UK fans.

If you pop along to the gig do not be surprised to hear a number of songs with science lyrics. The New York based band has successfully combined entertainment and science education with their latest album entitled Here Comes Science, which was released last year.

I had a listen to their latest album and talked to the band ahead of their UK visit as well as asking physicists what they thought about the rock group.

They Might Be Giants, who in 1990 released the hit song “Birdhouse in your soul” that reached the dizzy heights of number six in the UK charts, consists of duo John Flansburgh and John Linnell, who formed the band in 1982.

What makes Here Comes Science especially appealing is the use of music, rather than just lyrics, to educate about science. “We’ve been performing science and history songs for a long time and were intrigued by popular scientific ideas,” Flansburgh told

Some tracks from the new album are simply repetitious to supposedly reinforce a basic scientific principle, such as the difference between speed and velocity. “Even a cursory definition of scientific ideas can be a mouthful for kids,” says Flansburgh. “So we tried to explain them in an appealing way. In the song “Speed and velocity”, we just repeat the difference over and over, so by the end kids will know what each is.”

The song “Meet the elements” on the album is a quick tour of the periodic table, and cranks out properties for over a dozen common elements, while “Science is real” and “Put it to the test” outline what science is and how it is done.

Flansburgh says that he and Linnell sought scientific advice when composing the lyrics, and are aware that a few bloopers slipped through. But They Might Be Giants generally get things right in their songs, for example, making the correct distinction between a meteor and meteorite in “What is a shooting star?”

Walter Smith, a physicist at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, says that a few of the physics-related songs are “brilliant” and would even be appropriate for high-school or college students.

“I really appreciate their goal of getting young kids thinking and talking about science through music,” says physicist Jacob Blickenstaff of the University of Southern Mississippi.

Brian Malow, a San Francisco based stand-up comedian with a fascination for science in popular culture has enjoyed their music for years. “They have a song called ‘Solid liquid gas’ which subtly conveys the difference between the three with music,” says Malow, referring to the progressively higher vocal tones as the states of matter are introduced – analogous to their respective increasing molecular motions.

Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, has been following the band since the days of cassette tapes. “I first heard them when I was in Antarctica 15 years ago collecting meteorites, and several of the other members of my team had brought tapes,” says Consolmagno. “The songs on their new album are great fun, and that’s the most important message you can get across to kids: this stuff is as much fun as sports or rock-and-roll.”

Flansburgh is quite pleased with the reception the album has had. “The response has been extremely positive, especially from teachers,” he says. “The videos are on YouTube and teachers are using them in their classes. Because we’ve had so much success with our music for kids, we’ve been able to reach a larger audience than we ever could have imagined.”

So get down to London and Cambridge this weekend and see the band for yourself.

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