Wednesday, May 18, 2011

If you hum a few bars I can fake it

Last night, NPR's All Things Considered ran an enthusiastic segment on a new venture by The National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) at the University of Tennessee:
One of the challenges among scientists is to describe the work they do in language the rest of us can understand. That's the idea behind a new program at the University of Tennessee that uses music to bridge that communication gap.

Jay Clark is one of five Songwriters in Residence... Each has one month to write two songs that put the scientific experience into words and music.
The Songwriter in Residence program is the brainchild of NIMBioS director Louis Gross. Gross noticed that the scientists and mathematicians with whom he works aren't always that good at communicating their ideas in a concise, accessible way. Moreover, he says, most people don't really have the time or patience to wade through complicated explanations of scientific theory. As a result, we don't always have a good sense of what scientists are doing.
"The better that we are at getting the ideas across without going into all the detail that often people are not that interested in, the better off we are as a nation and as a community of scientists," Gross says.

...To test out his first stab at a song about the evolutionary process known as sexual selection, Clark dragged one of the NIMBioS scientists, Erol Akcay, down to a conference room. Ackay's response was about what you'd expect from a scientist:

"Well, it definitely sounded good," Ackay told Clark. "But, you know, from my research, that's kind of an oversimplification of what animals actually do."

That's the point of the whole program. The scientists watch the songwriters and learn how to make their ideas more accessible. The songwriters watch the scientists unravel the mysteries of the natural world — and then write songs the rest of us can understand. At least, that's how it's supposed to work.
Science is not in the business of making anything more complicated or obscure than it needs to be. Everything else being equal, the simpler theory wins out. But the natural world is very complex, and any simplification for the sake of simplification is oversimplification.

So I have a better idea. Let's have a musician in residence in a department that really needs one: one where theories are "critical" and concepts are "problematized." Better yet, such a department could house a scientist in residence. The results might be quite... transgressive.


Deirdre Mundy said...

Hmm.. actually, I really like this idea--there are some great math/science oriented humorous folk singers! I mean, look at Tom Lehrer!

Katharine Beals said...

Ah, but Lehrer is spoofing math *education*!
He sure is fun, though. How many Gen Xers and younger have heard of him, I wonder?

Deirdre Mundy said...

Well, I'm Gen X, and all my Math/Science nerd friends love him! :) Remember, he got a lot of play on the Dr. Demento show.... along with Weird Al.... And Stan Freburg....

So... there are at least certain subcultures who still adore him... chem teachers, for instance.

I think songwriters can definitely help explain tough concepts, though. For instance, the Keynes/Hayek raps also get a lot of play:

You just need a lot of talent and a sense of humor--and real understanding of the material you're trying to explain.