26 Scientists, Volume One Anning-Malthus

The scientists are:

  • Mary Anning (the “bone girl” of Lyme Regis)
  • Luther Burbank (who brought us the Russet Burbank potato among other plants)
  • Marie Curie
  • Charles Darwin
  • Albert Einstein
  • Buckminster Fuller
  • Galileo Galilei
  • Werner Heisenberg
  • Jan Ingenhousz (this is the surely the only pop song in the world containing the word “phlogiston”)
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin
  • Joseph Lister
  • Thomas Malthus (who always makes me think of the Malthusian Belts in Brave New World)

Many of the songs on the album are mini biographies of the scientists combined with recaps of their accomplishments and theories. Charles Darwin, Luther Burbank and Albert Einstein are the most straightforward of these. Albert
Einstein’s is the lone first person entry, beginning the album with the words: “I was born in Bavaria…” but the rest are third person. Thomas Jefferson, Marie Curie and Jan Ingenhousz are minimalist vignettes of their subjects, while Buckminster Fuller and Werner Heisenberg focus on the ideas rather than the lives. Werner Heisenburg
describes the issue of the observer’s role in reality, but endears itself to me by not promoting any
particular interpretation – as the song says, “why is not the question, but how.”. I especially liked how backup vocals echo the “how” into “ow” and a very appropriate “wow”; in another part of the song they seem to sputter “but- but- but-” just as Heisenberg’s critics did.

Luther Burbank is my new favorite song. The use of a spoken voice
in part of it, surrounded by a catchy beat, reminds me a little of Beck. The band has a slightly gravelly male lead singer with some wonderful ethereal female backup vocals, and the album is constructed from the usual complement of electric and acoustic guitar and drums, along with pipes and harmonica and other things I can’t identify. The sound is full bodied and masterfully evocative of mood, from wistful and charming (Thomas Jefferson) to punkishly energetic (Joseph Lister).

I got my copy of the album digitally from iTunes for $9.99 but you can also spend $12 postpaid to
get the CD direct from Artichoke’s web site
complete with a free sticker. I highly recommend it!

10 thoughts on “26 Scientists, Volume One Anning-Malthus”

  1. I created a Tome Lehrer “periodic song” page some time ago. I included a few interesting links including to a Flash video-ization of The Elements. Take a look and see what’s been discaaaarvard…

  2. A quick Google for Phlogiston Lyrics reveals another song containing that word: Epoch Of Unlight’s Conflagration Of Hate:

    The child of night has now his ascent
    And crushed lay the feeble in death’s stalwart grip
    Searing phlogiston as child rises high
    Blinks into darkness when through time he flies

    Pretentious phlogiston rock methinks

  3. I had forgotten about Lehrer’s Werner von Braun, that surely counts as a song about a scientist. Not exactly a flattering one, though. (“‘Once ze rockets are up, who cares where zey come down? / Zat’s not my department’ says Werner von Braun.”)

  4. Hakim Bey; Temporary Autonomous Zone; Track 1: Chaos.

    “CHAOS NEVER DIED. Primordial uncarved block, sole worshipful monster, inert & spontaneous, more ultraviolet than any mythology (like the shadows before Babylon), the original undifferentiated oneness-of-being still radiates serene as the black pennants of Assassins, random & perpetually intoxicated.

    Chaos comes before all principles of order & entropy, it’s neither a god nor a maggot, its idiotic desires encompass & define every possible choreography, all meaningless aethers & phlogistons: its masks are crystallizations of its own facelessness, like clouds.

    Everything in nature is perfectly real including consciousness, there’s absolutely nothing to worry about. Not only have the chains of the Law been broken, they never existed; demons never guarded the stars, the Empire never got started, Eros never grew a beard.”

  5. I intentionally did not browse much through Artichoke’s very nice web site until after I wrote my review, so I wouldn’t be influenced by anything but the album itself. But now that I have, there are a few things I want to add! First off, I apparently cannot tell the difference between a harmonica and an accordion – that sound in Luther Burbank is actually accordion. Also, some of the songs feature a theramin [think theme from Star Trek], how cool is that!?.

    Second, there was a New York Times article about the album, also about science songs in general (who knew there was a Science Songwriters’ Association?!). The article is hosted on Artichoke’s site so you don’t have to worry about NYT registration (thanks!!)

    And finally, good news: songs are already written for Volume II: Newton – Zeno! Including ones about Chien-Shiung Wu and William of Ockham. And I simply have to quote this from the Artichoke journal:

    Sometimes I daydream that Terry Gross, host of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” is asking me how and why I began writing 26 loosely biographical songs about scientists, one for every letter of the alphabet. “Well, Terry,” I reply as if we were old chums, “it was a bit of a songwriting stunt. The abecedarium, as the A to Z structure is called, has long been a popular device in kid’s books, as well as with one of my favorite artists, Edward Gorey. These days when I sit down to write a song — starting with some rhythmic grunting and a little semi-melodious wailing — I ask myself, `Is this a scientist song?’ About half the time it is, in which case it’s research time. Did you know that when Isaac Newton died, he was a virgin who had neglected to write a will? And that all his furniture was covered with dark red velvet? Can’t wait to work that into Volume Two.” Before she can tell me how amusing this all is, and how great the songs are, my daydream ends abruptly. There’s a telephone in my hand, but Terry Gross is gone and I’m on hold with a credit card company.

  6. …music and science, my second and third favourite subjects, not necessarily in that order ;-)

  7. …also the eerie sound in Beach Boys Good Vibrations, and a forerunner to the movement-triggered devices used by Jean Michel Jarre in live performances during the 1990s.

    The theramin also featured in Brit comic Bill Bailey’s live show during which he does various musical pastiches, including one (with the theramin) of the BBC News audio-logo! Very funny, but you have to have been there…

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