Hearts in tune with the cosmos: astronomy songs (part I)

In the beautiful 2007 documentary, Seeing in the Dark, author Timothy Ferris explored the intersection the art of music with the science of astronomy during while coming of age in the 1950s:

I came to think of music and the stars as landmarks to steer by. I didn’t yet know that this was already an old story back when Kepler and Galileo talked about the music of the spheres, but I could sense a resonance between the night sky and the tricky matter of plucking a few strings in just the right way to put human hearts in tune with the cosmos.

Now of course music is not just art; it’s also math. And astronomy is not just science; it’s also creativity. Ferris is not alone in arguing the poetics intrinsic to the natural world and our drive to systematically and rationally understand it, and he is also not alone in trying to communicate the beauty of the underlying order of the universe through music. Symphony of Science is another such effort. John D. Boswell, known online as melodysheep, remixes science lectures and monologues from science documentaries-not necessarily the source material most remix artists would turn to first-into oddly compelling music videos. They are strange, but somehow wonderful. Here is one that is particularly on topic:

Monty Python has taken a different tack, but one that is no less reverent, under it all, to science. Here is there “Galaxy Song” from The Meaning of Life:

More recently, They Might Be Giants, the official rock band of nerds everywhere, produced a wonderful album of science songs for children called Here Comes Science. The songs are infectious, smart and funny. Most of them are covers, some of which are from the 1950s. No New Age-y self-importance or pan-pipe-y spirituality here. Just good science with pop hooks. Here they are on the first track, Science Is Real:

I like the stories
About angels, unicorns and elves
Now I like those stories
As much as anybody else
But when I’m seeking knowledge
Either simple or abstract
The facts are with science.

As a text, Science is Real is a model for pithy, succinct argumentation, quickly delineating superstition from science, and clarifying the way scientists use the word “theory”…which some science communicators don’t even seem to grasp. Parents, play Here Comes Science to your children. The world will be better for it, eventually.

One of those 1950s songs They Might Be Giants have revived is the wonderful round What is a shooting star? Some day I’m going to print out the parts of this song onto cards and hand it out to a crowd gathered for a star party and get them to sing it. It would be a great way to stall for the sky to get just a little darker at dusk.

In Part II we’ll look at how two of the songs on Here Come Science actually serve as an example of how science changes over time to reflect new understandings based on verifiable data.


One thought on “Hearts in tune with the cosmos: astronomy songs (part I)

  1. Good post! One correction: “Here Comes Science” by TMBG mostly includes originals, not covers. “Why does the sun shine,” “What is a shooting star,” and the Davy Crockett song are the only non-new songs.

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