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02/10/2014

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Science + Music = Geek Pop

Jim Bell embraces his inner nerd

At the recent Green Man Festival in Wales, I find myself in a small radio cabin hosting a radio show dedicated to music inspired by science. UCL physicist Dr. Martin Austwick has just finished playing live as his musical alter-ego, The Sound of The Ladies, and in a few minutes science troubadour, Jonny Berliner, is due in the studio. This is not exactly a typical day’s work for me – I spend most of my time working with kids as a planetarium presenter – but science and music has got me doing some strange things over the last few years.

Birth of Geek Pop

The story begins three years ago when the Null Hypothesis website featured an imaginary music festival on its podcast, featuring songs dedicated to science. The imaginary festival was named Geek Pop. From humble beginnings it expanded into an increasingly interactive experience with different stages featuring different acts, and all the music made freely available for anyone to listen to online.

And so the tenet of Geek Pop became: we do science + music. We now make monthly podcasts considering the scientific merits of songs suggested by listeners, from Atomic by Blondie to Intergalactic by the Beastie Boys via Monty Python’s Galaxy Song.

In its third year Geek Pop even became part of the non-virtual world too, with science based music acts performing in venues in Bristol and London during this year’s National Science and Engineering Week. As well as my brief DJ appearance, Green Man Festival also saw Geek Pop contributing acts to the line up of the Solar Stage in Einstein’s Garden, which is dedicated to science, technology and sustainability. Plans are already afoot for next year’s virtual festival.

Science as muse

If that briefly encapsulates what we do, it perhaps doesn’t address why we do it. Mostly we are proud geeks who feel there should be no stigma attached to such a label, and so want to publicly embrace our inner nerd. But more than that, we do believe that there is a disconnection between science and culture, particularly in music.

‘Where are all the science songs?’ sings Jonny Berliner as he takes to the stage in Einstein’s Garden. His song, called Science Songs, perfectly encapsulates the gap we feel exists in music that should be crammed full of songs inspired by science: ‘Some people get their inspiration only from within, chemical imbalances underneath their skin, like anger, depression, just a dip in serotonin, I prefer to talk about observables when I sing.’ The human experience is a fine subject for musical expression, but as Jonny so eloquently notes, it does not have to be our only muse.

Popular music is a great medium to work in. Although pop culture is not generally noted for its substance, it is something that speaks to many people including those who may feel that science has little to do with their lives. The music is what people will connect with, and the science must be secondary to this; we look to avoid the ‘try-hard’ approach of trying to push a scientific message in song form. When you find that perfect mix of scientific inspiration and musicality, new audiences will be there, singing and dancing along to a scientific beat. As long as science is the source, then their curiosity will be aroused if the music is good enough.

The best pop music can inspire people profoundly. It can change the way we view the world, just as the best science can.  There is great potential for the communication of science through music, as long as we can accept that the music must come first. 

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Jim Bell
Jim Bell is a freelance writer, presenter and co-organiser of Geek Pop www.geekpop.co.uk, be there *and* be square.
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