Adventures in Ethics and Science

The Free-Ride family got its copy of the new CD/DVD set Here Comes Science by They Might Be Giants this week. The sprogs, who have been listening and watching, offer something kind of like a review.


The first thing to note is that, on the DVD, you have a choice of going through the whole set of songs as a “show” with John Flansburg and John Linnell (animated, of course) providing little introductions that are both informative and humorous, or of selecting individual songs (without the intros) from an “A-O” menu and a “P-Z” menu. We tend to gravitate toward the alphabetical song menus, but going this way has the unintentionally hilarious effect of putting “Why Does the Sun Really Shine?” before “Why Does the Sun Shine?”, a song whose explanation of the sun it seeks to correct and complicate.* (Luckily, we already knew “Why Does the Sun Shine?” because it’s on the album Severe Tire Damage.)

We haven’t listened to the CD yet, because the animation that accompanies the songs on the DVD is appealing, amusing, and for the most part pretty informative (about things like cells, and blood, and chemical elements). However, I suspect that the CD will provide at least part of the soundtrack to the Free-Ride family’s next long drive (a situation where appealing animation would be a dangerous distraction).

The songs cover the range we’ve come to expect from They Might Be Giants over the years. The tunes are catchy, the rhythms infectious, the rhymes erudite (or maybe I mean geeky). For example, in the aforementioned “Why Does the Sun Really Shine?”:

“The sun is a miasma/Of incandescent plasma./The sun’s not simply made out of gas, no, no, no./The sun is a quagmire./It’s not made of fire./Forget what you’ve been told in the past.”

The song gestures toward an explanation of what kind of state of matter a plasma is, while alluding to fates stars like the sun might some day meet. Part of its appeal for me is that it also suggests that working with different explanations of a single phenomenon — some more simplified, others more complicated — is part of how we learn science, and maybe even part of how scientists do science.

This collection of songs, after all, is not just focused on science facts, but also on key features of science as a human activity. In the introduction to the song “Science is Real,” the Johns lay down some Rudolf Carnap**:

Science is a system of statements based on direct experience and controlled by experimental verification.

Somehow, the same ideas are a lot more fun when expressed in song lyrics:

“A scientific theory/Isn’t just a hunch or guess./It’s more like a question/That’s been put through a lot of tests and/When a theory emerges/Consistent with the facts,/The proof is with science,/ The truth is with science.”

The song notes that there’s nothing wrong with fanciful stories about unicorns or elves, but:

“When I’m seeking knowledge/The facts are with science.”

The songs in Here Comes Science range from those with a good bit of detailed information, like “Bloodmobile” (about which we blogged on a Friday of yore) and both songs about why the sun shines, to those which are mostly happy songs to sing about an idea (like “Electric Car” or “Computer Aided Design”). Some put mnemonic devices to music (“ROY G. BIV”) or provide alternatives for mnemonics that no longer work (“How Many Planets?”). Songs like “Speed and Velocity” provide nice, clear illustrations of the concepts (of speed, direction, velocity, acceleration) with no recourse to equations — it won’t get you through your first intro physics exam, but it might make learning the material for that exam more intuitive. Similarly, while “Solid Liquid Gas” says nary a word about intermolecular forces, the fact that its changing tempo is appropriate to the molecular motions of the particular state of matter being sung about might make the connection between average molecular velocity and state of matter more apparent a few years down the road when this is mentioned in a chemistry class.

And, there are some songs that grab us for both their content and their musical qualities. “What is a Shooting Star?” is a pretty round about meteorites. “I am Paleontologist” is a peppy song than any kid would want as her profession’s theme song, and the chorus:

“I am a palentologist/That’s who I am, that’s who I am, that’s who I am.”

seems to add more weight to my hunch that scientists are the kind of people whose personal identities and professional identities end up deeply entwined. Of course, owing to my chemical training, the musical majesty of the anthem “Meet the Elements” has me reaching for my lighter.

Yeah, we like these songs a lot.

Here’s some commentary from the sprogs on a few selected tracks:

“The Ballad of Davy Crockett (in Outer Space)”

Elder offspring: Who’s Davy Crockett?

Dr. Free-Ride: Ha ha! I guess the cultural reference doesn’t work if you don’t know that. He was someone who was involved in, uh, settling a lot of frontier land in the early days of the U.S. Of course, there were already people living in those lands.

Elder offspring: Yeah, I know.

Dr. Free-Ride: I think he was also a Congressman or something. Duke and Super Sally would recognize the song this is based on, but I guess a kid your age, not so much.

Elder offspring: Who’s Copernicus?

Dr. Free-Ride: Copernicus was a Polish astronomer who, in 1543, published a theory of planetary motion that put the sun, rather than the earth, at the center of the universe. Well, did you find that song informative.

Elder offspring: Sort of.

* * * * *

“Cells”

“Inside every cell is a twisted ladder.”

Dr. Free-Ride: What’s that?

Elder offspring: DNA.

Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah. You’ve climbed on that before. So, was that song informative?

Elder offspring: Yeah.

* * * * *

“Computer Aided Design”

Dr. Free-Ride: Hmm. This seems more like engineering than science to me.

Younger offspring: Are they making a metal dinosaur?

Elder offspring: It looks sort of like the front legs should be in the back.

Dr. Free-Ride: Whoa! That was pretty cool! Still … I think it’s more engineering than science.

* * * * *

“Electric Car”

Younger offspring: Yay! We like this one!

Dr. Free-Ride: OK, let’s watch it and you can tell me if it’s informative.

Younger offspring: Yay! I like bunnies!

Dr. Free-Ride: Sure, but what do bunnies have to do with an electric car?

Younger offspring: No, I just saw bunnies popping out in the cartoon.

Elder offspring: Augh!

Younger offspring: Why is it driving under the water?

Dr. Free-Ride: It’s fanciful.

Younger offspring: And it looks like a dog is driving.

Dr. Free-Ride: Also fanciful.

Elder offspring: Octopus!

Younger offspring: And now it looks like the sun!

* * * * *

“How Many Planets?”

Dr. Free-Ride: Uh oh. Is there going to be the whole issue of the reclassification of Pluto?

Elder offspring: I don’t know. Augh!

Dr. Free-Ride: What, Jupiter’s a little bigger than you’re comfortable with?

Elder offspring: No, it was smiling! It had a face.

Younger offspring: Uranus! Ew!

Dr. Free-Ride: Sigh. Are we going to get to the touchy subject?

Elder offspring: Pluto, Eris, and a bunch of other stuff!

Dr. Free-Ride: Other stuff, huh? Is that what we’re calling it nowadays?

Younger offspring: What is Eris?

Dr. Free-Ride: Eris is the one that they were calling Xena for a while. Do you think remembering the song and these images in your head would help you remember the order of them?

Elder offspring: I already know the order of them.

Dr. Free-Ride: But if you didn’t already?

Elder offspring: I don’t know. How can that kid breathe?

Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah, it’s fanciful.

* * * * *

“Meet the Elements”

Dr. Free-Ride: I knew they were going to rhyme elephant and element!

Younger offspring: All living things are mostly made of four elements!

Dr. Free-Ride: But notice the “other stuff” in that pie chart there. Those elements are pretty important — the iron in your blood, the calcium in your bones, the sodium and potassium that help send signals. And phosphorous. And … other stuff.

* * * * *

“My Brother the Ape”

Elder offspring: You know what I like?

Dr. Free-Ride: What?

Elder offspring: That dancing anteater!

(The sprogs broke into some dancing of their own. Remember how Calvin and Hobbes used to dance? Yeah, like that.)

Elder offspring: How did they get the sea star to stand up?

Dr. Free-Ride: Maybe they Photoshopped it like Dr. Isis does.

Younger offspring: What does Dr. Isis do?

Dr. Free-Ride: She’s the master of Photoshop. She can create pictures from parts of other pictures.

* * * * *

“ROY G. BIV”

Dr. Free-Ride: Is this song going to tell us anything other than the order of the colors in the rainbow?

Elder offspring: Um, I think it will tell us about colors of light.

Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah, but will it tell us how they get split into rainbows by raindrops?

Elder offspring: Mmm, no.

Younger offspring: I just want to watch it because it’s funny.

Dr. Free-Ride: I think it just helps you remember the order, but it doesn’t necessarily tell you anything really science-y.

Elder offspring: OK, this is just redundant!

Dr. Free-Ride: It’s called a refrain.

* * * * *

“Put it to the Test”

Dr. Free-Ride: Insert coins? The heck? Hey, that was like Pong!

Younger offspring: What’s Pong?

Dr. Free-Ride: Now it’s like John and John.

Younger offspring: Are they both called John?

Elder offspring: Yes.

“If it’s possible to prove it wrong,/You’re going to want to know before too long./You need a test.”

Dr. Free-Ride: I was talking about this in class today!

“Test it out!/Find a way to show what would happen/If you were incorrect.”

Dr. Free-Ride: Seriously, this is exactly what we were taking about, finding a way to figure out if you’re incorrect.

Elder offspring: Different weights fall at the same speed?

Younger offspring: No?

Both sprogs in unison: Test it!

Dr. Free-Ride: Bowling ball. Tennis ball. They drop them at the same time.

Both sprogs in unison: Auugh!

Dr. Free-Ride: It sure looks like they landed at the same time. I wonder if this game is set in a vacuum.

* * * * *

Dr. Free-Ride: Do you think Here Comes Science is a good way get kids interested in science, or in learning science facts that they might not know otherwise?

Both sprogs in unison: Yeah!

Dr. Free-Ride: What do think the best part of these is?

Younger offspring: The funny songs and the funny pictures.

Dr. Free-Ride: Do you think the funny distracts from the real information at all? Or do you think it helps you remember the information?

Younger offspring: It helps you remember.

Dr. Free-Ride: Can you imagine singing any of these songs to yourself in school once you’ve learned them a little better?

Elder offspring: No!

Dr. Free-Ride: You couldn’t? Not even silently, to yourself, on test day, to help you remember stuff?

Elder offspring: What would it do?

Dr. Free-Ride: I don’t know. If you had to remember ROY G. BIV.

Elder offspring: But I already know ROY G. BIV.

Dr. Free-Ride: You guys are too smart, then.

——-
*Dr. Free-Ride’s better half points out that this is something that will not surprise anyone familiar with Here Come the ABC’s .

**For an introductory idea of what science is up to aimed at kids, logical positivism is about right, I reckon.

Comments

  1. #1 Eric
    September 18, 2009

    My nearly-five-year-old daughter has been insisting on at least two viewings a day, every day, since the DVD came into our house.

    And then she goes to sleep listening to it.

    I’d feel worse about the indoctrination if she weren’t so darn curious about my science (food chemistry) and science in general.

  2. #2 Anne
    September 18, 2009

    So jealous. Our house was slow to order so we are patiently waiting. We love “Here come the ABCs” and “123s”

  3. #3 becca
    September 18, 2009

    “A scientific theory/Isn’t just a hunch or guess./It’s more like a question/That’s been put through a lot of tests and/When a theory emerges/Consistent with the facts,/The proof is with science,/ The truth is with science.”

    puts me in mind of…
    “it’s a scientific fact
    a scientific fact
    it has to be correct
    it has to be exact
    because it is, because it is, a scientific fact
    it’s a scientific fact that our high and low tides
    are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon
    it’s been proven to be true
    like one and one are two
    it’s checked and double checked
    a fact that can be backed
    because it is, because it is, a scientific fact…
    well of course even scientific facts are not perfectly exact, but they are as exact as it is humanly possible to make them at the time”

  4. #4 Neill
    September 19, 2009

    Ha, I wonder if the second section of the alphabet being PZ was a nod to the good doctor Myers. They did send him an advance copy so they are apparently aware of him.

  5. #5 Rick Pikul
    September 19, 2009

    I have to wonder if the bit with the octopus takes place in a garden.

  6. #6 Gaythia
    September 19, 2009

    Maybe what science needs is an adult version of this, to be played as public service announcements.

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