Scientific hip-hop

Even though both science and journalism boil down to same idea – explaining how things work – our writing often comes out quite different from one another. Scientists – bless them – usually write for each other, using the dense vocabulary that comes with centuries of increasingly focused study. Reporters then try to translate this painfully precise text into something our parents or kids could understand.

But sometimes, it takes a musician to really explain complicated ideas to the masses.

For example, a YouTube video rapping about the ins and outs of Europe’s Large Hadron Collider got more than 3.5 million views since the clip launched in July. (That's a whole lot more hits than our coverage received.) While not the catchiest tune, the five-minute song received kudos from scores of science blogs and columnists, including the Monitor’s Tom Regan.

Hoping to attract its own viral attention, NASA commissioned a hip-hop history of Astrobiology. The space agency turned to Jonathan Chase, a regular science rapper and post-doctoral student at the University of Glamorgan in the UK.

"Rap and hip-hop music is my passion and I had the idea of combining it with science to make basic scientific ideas more accessible," Chase says in today's BBC story. "I hope that I can continue to create these raps to address the various aspects of science."

Here's the link to his music video.

The secret to a good science rap is weaving in both the serious and the playful, according to Professor Mark Brake, who heads the science communication course at Chase's alma mater. "[Chase] uses rap in story form," he told the BBC. "Just as science-fiction narrative comments on the world through a 'hard' or 'soft' science lens, rap comments on the world through a 'hard' or 'soft' emotional lens."

For more on finding that balance between learning and entertainment, check out a recent podcast by WNYC's RadioLab called "Making the Hippo Dance." That quirky title is their metaphor for how they jazz up the heavy language that often makes hard-core science impenetrable to anyone without a Ph.D.

"The question here is just how far can you go in the name of making an idea clear?" reads the online description. "What’s allowed? Is music allowed? Are sound effects allowed? What helps? What hurts? We play some never-released tape from the vault, and reveal a bit about what techniques we used to try and make it sing."

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