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September 12, 2009

Here Comes Science, by They Might be Giants

A Review of a Rocking Science CD/DVD

By Scott Charles Anderson

When I was a kid – sometime in the last century – we were occasionally entertained by science. We had Mr. Wizard, the late Don Herbert, who would suck eggs into a bottle and show us how siphons and diesel engines worked. The production values were worse than my Dad's home movies, but the lessons were cool. We were often inspired to reproduce them in the kitchen, which somehow never really thrilled Mom like we thought it would. Most of the time, we avoided major damage.

Then there was Disney. Old Walt managed to kick up the visual appeal by orders of magnitude. He took on fusion, relativity and atomic structure, among other tough-to-teach subjects. The gurus at Disney knew that there was no quicker way into the consciousness of a kid than visualization and a certain coolness factor. Some of my fellow students found this a great time to catch up on their sleep, but a few of us ate it up.

My own kids, in turn, were fortunate enough to catch Bill Nye, the Science Guy. Bill is not only brilliant, but he's funny, and his visual pyrotechnics blew right past Mr. Wizard. They also had Beakman's World, where wild-haired actors and puppets did the teaching. Great stuff.

So, who will inherit the mantle of awesomely entertaining science guys for the new millennium? Say hello to They Might Be Giants (TMBG). Yes, the killer musicians behind hits like "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," and "Boss of Me," the Grammy-winning theme song for Malcolm in the Middle (about a smart kid), have conspired to create a CD/DVD on science for kids. And it rocks!

These music videos are colorful, fun and canny.  TMBG has created a delicious concoction of snappy tunes and wicked graphics with just the right approach for younger kids. The first song on the CD admits that unicorns and angels are fun, but that science is actually real. That's the perfect attitude. Too many of my fellow scientists tend to take their science dry. That's fine for them, but kids need to know that learning science won't dampen their awe. Have fun with fantasy and fiction! In fact, when formulating hypotheses, a little fantastical thinking can be downright essential.

The two founders of TMBG, John Flansburgh and John Linnell, corralled a passel of other musical and artistic talents to help with this effort. Not too surprisingly, Disney had a hand in it as well – perhaps a signal that they have spotted a trend to reboot science after a long period of public lassitude and even outright hostility. If the current administration is serious about dealing with our oil addiction and global warming, we may need scientists even more than we need bankers.

The CD/DVD package is titled Here Comes Science, and there is pretty much no excuse for Elementary and even Middle schools not to pick up a handful of them to entertain and educate their young, impressionable charges. Interestingly, my normally aloof teenagers also enjoyed the music, even if they knew most of the science. And that's a wonderful thing  – the songs aren't merely tacked on to a lecture, they are actually clever, memorable tunes in TMBG's inimitable alt-rock style. On the DVD, they are perfectly matched to mixed-media graphics that are different, clever, and appropriate for each lesson. They're ideal for kicking off a new topic for study or just to generate a lively conversation.

One of the more astonishing things they do is to unmask the ever-evolving nature of science. For instance, there are a pair of songs about how the sun shines. The first is a rollicking ditty that says "the sun is a mass of incandescent gas," which is immediately followed by second version that refines that to "the sun is a miasma of incandescent plasma." It then goes on to entertainingly describe the difference between a gas and a plasma. It may be a tricky lesson, but it's a hugely hopeful one: kids may start to understand that science doesn't involve memorizing entrenched dogma, but instead is a vibrant trek through uncharted territory; a trek they can join and even lead.

The songs cover topics from atomic physics to biology. TMBG even has the nerve to update the Ballad of Davy Crockett by launching him into outer space. Which brings us back full circle to those of us old farts who still remember the 60s. If TMBG had been around back then, I'm positive more of my fellow students would have stayed awake. Who knows how different the world would be today?

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Here Comes Science