They Might Be Science: Astronomy Songs (Part II)

Last post, I wrote about how I think the band They Might Be Giants is pretty great. Not only are they the darlings of adult nerds everywhere, they also make kicking kids’ music that doesn’t speak down to the little ones. Their album Here Comes Science is especially awesome, not only because they introduce scientific concepts, but because they actually model the process of scientific inquiry. And, because TMBG knew they were not exactly scientists, they hired a consultant to help them make sure they got it right.

One of the album’s songs, Why Does the Sun Shine?, was originally recorded by Tom Glazer in 1959’s Space Songs. Here is the refrain, taken almost verbatim from the Golden Guide to the Stars, a little book that served as many budding astronomer’s introductory text for decades. I used a version in the late 1980s with my first telescope, a miserable 60mm Edu-Science refractor:

The sun is a mass of incandescent gas
A gigantic nuclear furnace
Where hydrogen is built into helium
At a temperature of millions of degrees

It’s a catchy little ditty, with one problem. It’s wrong. The sun is not made up of incandescent (glowing) gas. The stuff churning around the sun is plasma. Plasma is like a gas (in some ways) but different in others. It’s a fourth state of matter, the oft-ignored sibling of solids, liquids and gases. It’s ionized, which means that the electrons are separated from the nuclei and are free-floating. Plasma conducts electricity, which is also why the sun produces such strong and turbulent magnetic fields, and why solar flares excite the ionosphere of the earth and make aurora. Plasma is the glowy part of a spark, the “stuff” lightning is made up of, the thing that is shining inside a neon sign buzzing incessantly out of your Replicant Hotel window.

But here’s the great part about this story and the thing that makes me love TMBG even more as a scientist than I did way back when as a nerd who was all off course and studying politics; when their album was being fact checked, the out of date info was discovered, and so they wrote a whole new song to correct it. It’s called Why Does the Sun Really Shine? And it is awesome too!

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(Plasma!) Electrons are free
(Plasma!) A fourth state of matter
Not gas, not liquid, not solid
Ooh!The sun is no red dwarf
I hope it never morphs
Into some supernova’d collapsed orb
Orb, orb, orb
The sun is a miasma
Of incandescent plasma
I forget what I was told by myself
Elf, elf, elf(Plasma!) Electrons are free
(Plasma!) A fourth state of matter
Not gas, not liquid, not solid(Plasma!) Forget that song
(Plasma!) They got it wrong
That thesis has been rendered invalid

Here’s the video:


What makes this song so cool is not just that it is a correction, but that it acknowledges the fact and underscores scientific method. The presence of both songs on the album make it a great teaching “object” for young people. The thing about science that sets it apart from most other systems of knowledge devised by humanity is that it changes according to the preponderance of the evidence. It is self-correcting and fact-checking is built in. That is not to say it is perfect. It’s still a flawed human endeavor. But it is remarkably useful. It is perhaps the most powerful problem-solving structure in human history. And now you’ve got two infectious songs to teach to your children that helps communicate the process and power of science.

Interestingly, I’m not sure if the 1959 song (and the Golden Guide which provided the offending passage) got it wrong, or if scientists at the time were mistaken about the nature of the sun. Plasma was discovered in 1879 and got its name in 1928. Should the original authors have known better in 1959?


One thought on “They Might Be Science: Astronomy Songs (Part II)

  1. Pingback: Links: ancient physics prof, another crowdfunding campaign, TMBG on astronomy | Sing About Science & Math

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