Scientists And Musicians Compare Notes

Originally published on May 17, 2011 5:53 pm

One of the challenges among scientists is to describe the work they do in language the rest of us can understand. That's the idea behind a new program at the University of Tennessee that uses music to bridge that communication gap.

The National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, or NIMBioS, isn't a place for intellectual lightweights. The whiteboards are tagged with the frenetic graffiti of advanced math, and the conversations are dense with the mysterious jargon of advanced science. So the last thing you'd expect to see there is an office door with a sign reading, "Songwriter in Residence."

Jay Clark is one of five Songwriters in Residence who will move in and out of NIMBios this year. Each has one month to write two songs that put the scientific experience into words and music.

"A week and a half, two weeks ago, when I told someone about it, they'd look at me like, 'What the hell you going to write?' " Clark says. "My answer would be, 'You know, I'm not real sure yet. I'm just hoping it will come to me.' "

The Songwriter in Residence program is the brainchild of NIMBioS director Louis Gross. Gross noticed that the scientists and mathematicians with whom he works aren't always that good at communicating their ideas in a concise, accessible way. Moreover, he says, most people don't really have the time or patience to wade through complicated explanations of scientific theory. As a result, we don't always have a good sense of what scientists are doing.

"The better that we are at getting the ideas across without going into all the detail that often people are not that interested in, the better off we are as a nation and as a community of scientists," Gross says.

Writing The Songs

Songwriters are used to taking complex concepts like love and heartbreak and condensing them into short, easy-to-understand stories — it's how people like Jay Clark make a living. To test out his first stab at a song about the evolutionary process known as sexual selection, Clark dragged one of the NIMBioS scientists, Erol Akcay, down to a conference room. Ackay's response was about what you'd expect from a scientist:

"Well, it definitely sounded good," Ackay told Clark. "But, you know, from my research, that's kind of an oversimplification of what animals actually do."

That's exactly the kind of scientific critique Clark was looking for. But it doesn't make it any easier to write the song.

"I was trying not to make it completely 100 percent literal," he says. "Not that the average music audience isn't a smart group of people — but, you know, this is not my usual type of song."

Akcay says he understands Clark's dilemma.

"There are things that I would like to change about [the song]," he says. "But I have to think about how I would change it, how I would say what I want to say in so many verses and make it sound good, and also be comfortable singing it."

That's the point of the whole program. The scientists watch the songwriters and learn how to make their ideas more accessible. The songwriters watch the scientists unravel the mysteries of the natural world — and then write songs the rest of us can understand. At least, that's how it's supposed to work.

"It's still an experiment," Akcay says. "That's what I like about it."

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Matt Shafer Powell of member station WUOT in Knoxville recently spent some time learning about science, music and how both can be used to tell a story.

MATT SHAFER POWELL: Unidentified Man #1: Let's say these conditions favor (unintelligible). We bring (unintelligible) down here. We bring (unintelligible) back up.

SHAFER POWELL: So the last thing you'd expect to see at NIMBioS is an office door with a sign that reads Songwriter in Residence.

JAY CLARK: (Singing) When I get to drinking...

SHAFER POWELL: Jay Clark is one of five songwriters in residence who's moving in and out of NIMBioS this year. Each has one month to write two songs that put the scientific experience into words and music.

CLARK: You know, a week and a half, two weeks ago, when I told someone about it, they'd look at me like: What in the hell are you going to write? My answer would be: You know, I'm not real sure yet. I'm just hoping it'll come to me.

SHAFER POWELL: And he says most people don't really have the time or patience to wade through complicated explanations of scientific theory. And so we don't always have a good sense of what scientists are doing.

LOU GROSS: The better that we are at getting the ideas across without going into all the detail that often people are not that interested in, the better off we are as a nation and as a community of scientists, as well.

SHAFER POWELL: Songwriters are used to taking complex concepts like love and heartbreak and condensing them into short, easy-to-understand stories. It's how people like Jay Clark make a living.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR)

CLARK: Let me get this thing tuned up here.

SHAFER POWELL: Clark has dragged one of the NIMBioS scientists, Erol Akcay, down to a conference room to hear his first stab at a song about the evolutionary process known as sexual selection.

CLARK: (Singing) Sexual selection is all about choosing a mate. Sexual selection 'cuz we want to copulate.

SHAFER POWELL: It might sound fine to a layman, and funny, too. And Akcay says he likes the song.

EROL AKCAY: Well, it definitely sounded good.

SHAFER POWELL: But he's a scientist.

AKCAY: But, you know, from my research, that's kind of an oversimplification of what animals actually do because a lot of animal species, you have, first of all...

SHAFER POWELL: That's exactly the kind of scientific critique Clark was looking for. But it doesn't make it any easier to write the song.

CLARK: I was trying not to make it completely, 100 percent literal because, you know, not that the average music audience isn't a smart group of people, but, you know, this is not my usual type of song.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHAFER POWELL: Akcay says he understands Clark's dilemma.

AKCAY: There are things that I would like to change about it, but then I have to think how I would change it, how I would say what I want to say, in so many verses, and make it sound good and also, you know, be comfortable singing it.

SHAFER POWELL: And that's the point of the whole program. The scientists watch the songwriters and learn how to make their ideas more accessible. The songwriters watch the scientists unravel the mysteries of the natural world and then write songs the rest of us can understand. At least, that's how it's supposed to work.

AKCAY: It's still an experiment, and that's I think what I like about it.

SHAFER POWELL: For NPR News, I'm Matt Shafer Powell in Knoxville, Tennessee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.