Look, I know Christmas is a ways off yet, but it’s never too early for science.
So why not do both?
Computational biology postdoc (!) Tariq Abdulla has done just that in a very, very clever and wonderful way: He’s taken standard Christmas carols and rewritten the lyrics to promote good ol’ fashioned science. He calls them Scientific Songs of Praise.
I know, you’re skeptical—as you should be. Always! But this is delightful. Abdulla has done a very good job getting not just the lyrics to scan well, but in some cases to sounds like the original. He also enlisted the lovely voice of mezzo-soprano Natalie Windsor. Put that on top of recordings of the music by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (or simple piano/guitar), and what you get is sure to become favorites of a lot of people who might otherwise bah-humbug the season.
Watch. This one is “Solar Light (Silent Night)”:
That was amazing. “Flowers reflect it for bees” made me laugh out loud. There's an alternate video using images and animations from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, too.
They’ve also done “How Peculiar (Hallelujah)” about the scientific method, “Dear Large Hadron Collider (Dear Lord and Father of Mankind),” "Tectonic Plates (Amazing Grace)," and my favorite (so far), “O Satellite (O Holy Night)”:
It’s nice how he included the lyrics so you can read along.
This all started when Abdulla wrote a version of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” about evolution. He heard Windsor singing “O Holy Night” on her Facebook page. This prompted him to write "O Satellite" and ask if she could record it. She agreed, and here we are.
These songs are really well thought out; they can appeal to religious people who like science too, because the lyrics are respectful of the original and the execution so well done. Still, when I hear songs like this, I wonder how religious and non-religious people might react. Abdulla told me that Windsor is religious, in her own way, and she has this to say:
I have heard a lot of atheist scientists assert that they don't need a God to help them feel the absolute wonder of the universe. And this idea captivated me. I decided I wanted to bring the intense emotions aroused by sacred classical music to secular lyrics. There is definitely a special emotional quality to pieces written about God, etc. One that isn't historically found in the secular pieces. So why not start? Everybody should enjoy the most beautiful music ever written. And everybody should understand the wonder of science as a miracle, something we do not fully understand yet through physics, and other sciences, we grow closer and closer to the truth. And the truth can be absolutely awe inspiring.
What a lovely thought! I’ll add that here, it seems to me she uses the term “miracle” to mean something wondrous and awe-inspiring, and not a supernatural act that defies the laws of physics. In that sense, I agree with her. The natural Universe is pretty amazing.
Abdulla has written quite a few songs, and plans on releasing them once a week leading up to Christmas.
P.S. And what is it about mezzo-sopranos and science? Indre Viskontas, Hai-Ting Chinn … I wonder if it would be possible to sample different vocal ranges and see if they’re correlated with affinity for science. That would make a good research project. And we could turn it into an opera.