YouTube’s auto-transcription needs work

Many science songs posted to YouTube (and other sites) don’t come with lyrics in text format, which renders these songs all but invisible to users of our database. Unless someone searches for a keyword that is in the song’s title, or searches for the specific artist who did the song, the song remains undiscovered.

I just noticed that YouTube now offers auto-transcription of many videos. Could this help us harvest previously unavailable lyrics?

Well … yes and no. YouTube does attempt to auto-transcribe lyrics from some music videos. However, its interpretations of those lyrics are reminiscent of the autocompletion guesses of a so-called “smartphone.”

As an example, let’s take Glenn Wolkenfeld’s Electron Transport Chain song, released last month. Here are the first two verses, according to Glenn.

Welcome to this story about cell energy
The goal is explaining how cells make ATP
It happens in the mitochondria which you can think of
As the cell’s energy factory

Mitochondria are double-membraned organelles,
An inner membrane and an outer one as well
The mitochondrial matrix is the fluid inside
It’s where reactions like Krebs cycle reside

And here they are according to YouTube’s auto-transcription.

welcome to the story about self-energy
called with explaining how cells make ATP
it happens in the bayou country which pick it
as a self going to back to work

by the country are couple members organelles
any demand plane however one as well
the mitochondrial matrix is the food inside
three reactors like Rip Micheals

I love that ATP production is said to occur “in the Bayou country.” It’s also interesting that comedian/actor Rip Micheals is involved somehow.

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Singing about science: father-son edition

On Tuesday evening my son Phil and I headed to the University branch of the Seattle Public Library for “Sing a Song of Science” with veteran children’s musician Nancy Stewart. Most of the kids there were very young — at 7, Phil might have been the elder statesman of the bunch — and he initially lingered by the stairs rather than joining the others. But after he answered one of Nancy’s first questions and she recruited him to hold up a picture of the sun for her solar system song, he was in. Before long, he was wiggling and dancing on cue.

Nancy’s show was filled with questions and puzzles. Her backdrop included a box for each letter of the word S-C-I-E-N-C-E, and inside each box was another word beginning with that same letter. Most were straightforward, but the second “C” turned out to stand for Cephalopod, a nice curveball reminiscent of They Might Be Giants. Also reminiscent of TMBG was her skillful reinforcement of her lyrics with musical elements. For instance, a song about a pulley had a melody that climbed up the scale as the pulley rose upward.

Nancy asked us to complete the sentence, “Science is …” Phil shouted, “Surprising!” I offered, “Rigorous!” Which isn’t a bad two-word summary of the joys of science. If you do something rigorously, the surprises are more interesting (to me, anyway) because they are more likely to be “real.”

Toward the end, Nancy introduced a fanciful dinosaur counting song with the words, “Dinosaurs are not around anymore, but if they were, I think they’d want to drive cars.”

“Not pteranodons!” Phil countered. Presumably his thinking was, why drive when you can fly? Note, however, that pteranodons aren’t dinosaurs. Nice try, wise guy.

By the way, several of Nancy’s science songs are available online through her website, A search of the database reveals that some even come with online sheet music! (Note the “score” buttons in the Links column of the search results page.)
Nancy Stewart

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Spring-to-summer link roundup (Updated)

From moths to music: Life for PhD biologists isn’t all science (Montana Kaimin)

[Keaton Wilson] is a member of The Whizpops, a children’s band that focuses on elementary education and science curriculum as the basis of their lyrics. One of his favorite songs on their new ocean-themed album is “Dolphin Disco.” The founders of the band, Casey Schaefer and Kevin Cashman, are elementary school teachers. The song-writing duties fall on them, but they often run lyrics by Wilson to ensure scientific accuracy.

Daytona teacher’s song-and-dance program helps kids absorb lessons (Daytona Beach News-Tribune)

The former cheerleader and Miss Bethune-Cookman University started developing the math and reading programs — including software and videos being used in classrooms at other Volusia schools and across the country — 10 years ago while teaching fifth grade in Broward County. Frustrated when her students had trouble grasping the concept of division, Pasley-Henry tried creating songs and dance moves to capture the children’s attention and help them remember the math rules to follow.

Communicating science through hip-hop (PLoS Blogs)

Ethan Perlstein: “…I think every seminal paper in the history of science should be immortalized and popularized in rap form. Someone needs to call Kanye’s or Eminem’s agents and see if they’re interested in bringing science to the masses. There are lots of papers to go around!”

Brotherly punk duo writes music for stage (The Western Star)

Being asked to write a song on relatively short notice is a tall order for nearly any artist. Asking a punk band to write a tune about mathematics for a stage play doesn’t make the task any easier.

10 awesome pieces of astronomy-inspired music (Astronomy magazine)

“Talent is an Asset” [is] the coolest song about Einstein ever. Example: “Look at Albert, isn’t he a sight; growing, growing at the speed of light.”

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Quick media roundup

I was pleased to be profiled by my local Fox News affiliate recently, and also by German radio station WDR. But Tom McFadden topped me by getting onto the national ABC News!

“We know that the students like technology, they like music, right? So you put those both together and the students are learning,” said Lolita Jackson, principal of KIPP Bridge.

“There’s such a dramatic difference when you can create something like this, that’s really professional, that makes an impact,” McFadden said. “That students get to see themselves as part of the fabric of culture and of the Internet and of education and creators. That has a big impact on anybody, especially students.”

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Science songster interview #18: Dargan Frierson

Another anecdote supporting the idea that the number of educators teaching science through music is larger than anyone realizes: This spring I was forwarded an email advertising a talk by about educational science songs … to be given at the University of Washington … by a UW professor who wasn’t me, and whom I had never heard of before.

To make a long story short and then long again, I went to the talk, which was great, and then conducted the interview below. (Photo of Dargan Frierson by UW College of the Environment.)

Dargan Frierson, Associate Prof. of Atmospheric Sciences

Sing About Science & Math: Tell us about Atmospheric Science 111 at the University of Washington, the course in which you sing regularly to students.

Dargan Frierson: ATM S 111: Global Warming is a survey class about the science of climate change. It’s a large lecture (240 students) with two hour meetings, so anything I can do to break up the lecture and keep everybody awake helps. I sing at least a song a week, sometimes two, on topics ranging from climate feedbacks (to the tune of “Get Back” by the Beatles) and ocean acidification (to the tune of “Californication” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers), to green roofs (“Paint it White” to the tune of “Paint it Black” by the Rolling Stones) and living a carbon neutral lifestyle (“Carbon Zero” to the tune of “Zero” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs).

SAS&M: You write original music as well, but for this class you mostly sing parodies of popular songs. Why?

DF: I think the concepts are more easily remembered when it’s part of a melody that people know. So for the students’ learning, I think parodies are better.

SAS&M: Your parodies tend to be of “classic rock” songs. Do today’s undergraduates seem to like these oldies, or do they groan with dismay (or shrug with ignorance) when you launch into a David Bowie tune? Do you feel any temptation to parody current artists in order to connect with students better?

DF: The students seem to know most of the old songs pretty well. Some have said that their parents played these tunes while they were growing up, so they know them pretty well. I can’t help doing a deep cut every once in a while though — like “Man Who Sold the World” by Bowie (which I learned from the Nirvana Unplugged album) or “Rain” by the Beatles.

Every once in a while I’ll do a newer song, but it has to be something I really like. I would love to do some rap (I even half-wrote a parody of Kanye West’s “Power” about the electricity grid), but unfortunately my rapping skills are neither funky nor fresh…

SAS&M: What do you consider your best atmospheric science song, and why do you consider it the best one?

DF: I’d say my best is “Albedo” written to the tune of “I’ll Be There” by the Jackson 5. It’s simple, and gets across the concept of albedo in a fun way. Songs where the hook is the scientific term you want them to remember = great for education.

SAS&M: Have you made any attempts to quantify the educational impact of your songs?

DF: I haven’t done too much in terms of quantifying the impact, but I have some good evidence about the Albedo song. The first year I taught this class I didn’t sing the song and about 70% of the students got the albedo question right on the test. The second year, after I had sung the song, over 95% of the students got it right!

I also surveyed the class this year on whether they learned from the songs, and 75% said they did learn substantially from them, beyond just enjoying them.

SAS&M: Your department, Atmospheric Sciences, has a holiday party that includes live musical and quasi-musical performances. Have your classroom songs, and students’ positive reactions, inspired other UW atmospheric science faculty to try singing to their own students? Have any colleagues reported whining along the lines of, “Why can’t YOU sing to us the way Prof. Frierson does?”

DF: Actually the parody songwriting in our department predates me! Profs. Mike Wallace and Dennis Hartmann were writing songs for our departmental winter party years before I got there, and their songs really inspired me to take it up myself. I sing songs written by both of them in my class. For example, one of Dennis Hartmann’s best songs is “Surface Pressure.”

I’m the only one who sings in class in our department, but I have gone in to several other profs’ classes to play songs though. I’ve told my colleagues that I’m always available for guest singing appearances in their lecture.

SAS&M: As mentioned by an audience member at your recent Sandbox presentation, a few researchers have sonified their data, i.e., converted it into music, either to help them detect patterns in the data, or to highlight such patterns for others. Your own research includes a lot of mathematical modeling of circulatory processes. Can you imagine sonifying your own data?

DF: I think sonification is really cool, but I can’t imagine doing it myself any time soon. My music is mostly acoustic instruments and singing, so I don’t have much experience with digital music or construction of sounds.

SAS&M: Finally, I believe that you are working on some sort of climate change video game. What can you tell us about that? Will it include a Bowie-esque theme song?

DF: Our video game project is still in the early planning stages, so there’s not much info to give just yet. I do hope to write some music for it eventually though!

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Science songster interview #17: Steve Rush

For years, I’ve been intending to interview Steve Rush, a.k.a. funky49. He’s an anomaly among anomalies: a science music guy who’s not a scientist, science teacher, or full-time musician. Plus he’s super-friendly on Twitter. After one of his recent re-tweets of my attempts at humor, I resolved to finally give him the interview that he deserves — or an interview of some sort, at least. Read on to find out how he pays the bills, what his next album is going to be like, where the handle funky49 came from, and more.

Steve in action at the 2012 Science and Engineering Festival
[Steve Rush in action at the 2012 Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC.]

SAS&M: When I interviewed Kate McAlpine (creator of the “Large Hadron Rap”), she named you as one of her favorite science rappers. She said, “I like Steve Rush for pure enthusiasm. He’s not a scientist or science communicator by training – he just thinks science rocks and wants to share it.” So … you’re not a scientist. What are you? A professional musician? Some corporate guy with good hair and a good mixing board?

SR: I AM SO HONORED! I’m just this guy, you know? My day job is an IT guy. I have 2 credit hours of music theory and a few electronic music classes under my belt. It’s mostly experimenting with software at home and learning things on my own. For me, music started in the early 90s with using MOD trackers on the PC. As music making software became more dangerous, so have I. I have learned a LOT of music production from my friend, John Sexton aka @redvoid. Over time I have acquired the gear to do basic home recording. I should read more manuals and watch more tutorials. By the way, ladies have found my hair soft and nice to touch.

SAS&M: Most people singing or rapping about science are science teachers, but you are not. What prompts you to create a science song — some concept that you just find interesting? Or is most of your work done on a contract basis? And who is your main target audience, if not students per se?

SR: Good question. I want to make things that sound good to me and are smart. I recently dropped a song called “Go for Launch.” It was inspired by a trip to Space Camp. For a few days, the nice folks at Space Camp USA had me and some other folks on Twitter come by, experience Space Camp, and tweet about it. (I proudly served as COMMANDER of the ENTERPRISE and successfully brought my crew home.) Some of us had our picture taken at the rocket garden at the nearby Marshall Space Flight Center. In that picture we were posed with our hands in the air like we were rockets. That picture inspired the song.

I honestly do not have a target audience. I would have to guess my audience are fans of both hip-hop and science. Creation comes from inspiration. I wanted to write a sexy song and mention sexual things so I made “Gene Swap.” I heard the local science museum, Tampa’s MOSI, wanted more social media reach so I made an EP tribute album for them. Everything I do as been incredibly selfish, except for the song for Fermilab. That was the one request I have taken on. The St. Petersburg Science Festival is having me back for the third year in a row. I want to come up with new songs to do live for them. The St. Pete Science Festival is really awesome! It is geared for kids but is a true treat no matter your age.

SAS&M: What is the story behind your rapper name, funky49? And how should people address you? Should we say, “Pleased to meet you, funky49?” Or can we shorten that to “funky” or “funk” or “f”?

SR: People should address me as Steve. I have been called funk, funky, and funky49. They are acceptable ways to address me. :) Good eye on you for noticing the lower case f. The story: While working at the IT call center for a large accounting firm, my friend assigned the password ‘funky49’ to an employee. This was hilarious because 1) it was policy for the employees to come up with their own passwords, not us; 2) this employee was failing to come up with a password that had the right number of letters and special characters; 3) this was the first time I heard my chill friend was exasperated. I took the name ‘funky49’ and recorded a cassette tape with all of the mini musical projects, ideas I had been playing with. I gave him the tape after titling it the ‘funky49 mix tape.’ A smoothie was spilled on it and it has been lost since.

SAS&M: It appears that you have a new album, “Area 49,” coming out in October. What non-classified information can you share about that?

SR: I’m excited to collaborate with Coma Niddy. I think our song is going to be about the sun. I want it to sound really awesome live, just in case we share the same stage one day. He’s really terrific, please check out Mike aka Coma Niddy! So far, a lot of the songs are going to be NASA/space-inspired. I have this idea where I fly across the country with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in his personal T-38 visiting NASA facilities and rapping about them. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have his own personal T-38, which is a shame but good for NASA budgetary purposes. I also plan to rap about brain chemistry because dopamine/serotonin means so much to our lives. I have a song about the different Apollo missions. I LOVE SPACE. I LOVE SPACE. I LOVE SPACE.

SAS&M: If you could work with any musician or band on a science-themed album, who would you work with and why?

SR: This is going to be very polarizing. I would work with Kanye West.

First, because I never heard back from his PR people when I invited him to Chicagoland’s Fermilab where I shot the video for Particle Business. Second, he is fellow a rapper/producer and I greatly appreciate that. Being able to blast a rap and a track is not common. He’s reinvented his sound multiple times in excellent ways so I figure I would learn a lot from him. If I could harness some of his enthusiasm he has for fashion and threesomes into science… I know we would edutain a lot of people. I don’t care about his non-musical shenanigans, just his creative output (just like John Lennon).

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My littlest fan

“Dad, when are you going to come to my school to do science music?” asked my 7-year-old.

“I don’t know, Phil. I would need to get permission to come, and I haven’t been able to get permission yet. Plus I really should focus on the things I’m paid to do, like teaching.”

“How much do you get paid to do science music?”

“Nothing, really.”

“But Dad, you love science music!”

“Yeah, but it’s something I just have to fit in when I have time.”

At that, Phil grabbed four quarters from his Easter money and plunked them down on the kitchen counter.

“I’ll pay you, Dad!”

Is there any possible response to that that doesn’t involve a hug?

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Links: in the news, writing science operas in Norway, etc.

• Colleague Katie Davis just presented our science music video study at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). This spawned a press release from the University of Washington and a report from local public radio affiliate KPLU.

• Oded Ben-Horin of The Science Fair is co-organizing a Write A Science Opera (WASO) course to be held August 3-9 in Norway. It targets middle-school science teachers! For details, please consult the WASO flyer.

• Speaking of middle school science, the Honeywell- and NASA-sponsored musical physics program FMA Live! Forces in Motion is now 10 years old. The Pensacola News-Journal has a report.

• Violinist Mark Wood warmed up for a performance at Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem by contributing to a lesson in the physics of sound.

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This is not a joke: the “MASSIVE” database is 10 years old

When I tell people that I have a free online database of science, technology, engineering, and math songs, they often think I’m kidding.

Last month, I completed my first decade of these incredulity-inducing conversations.

Yes, the database initially known as “MASSIVE” (for Math And Science Song Information, Viewable Everywhere) was launched in March of 2004. Below are screenshots of the search page and a search results page from around that time.

MASSIVE search page, circa 2004

MASSIVE search results page, circa 2004

Not exactly a thing of beauty, was it? Yet I was immensely pleased with myself. I had taught myself (just barely) enough MySQL and php to make the thing work, and now teachers around the country and perhaps the world could easily search for educational music to support their lessons.

While the database itself has changed a lot since 2004, my irrational pride in it has not. And so, in celebration of the 10-year milestone, I offer the following notes:

• Educators and others who have not done so already are encouraged to check out my article in Biochemical and Molecular Biology Education (freely available to all as of January 2014), my blog post on incorporating the database into classroom activities, and/or my brief video tutorial.

• Thank you to those who have encouraged my development of the database over the years — especially Do Peterson, Wendy Silk, Brian Glanz, and Katie Davis.

• Thank you to Steve Nakazawa Hewitt, Kate Clark, and Andrea Mina for improving the appearance of the database’s user interface.

• Thank you to the many writers and bloggers who have taken an interest in the database and spread the word about it.

• Last but not least, thank you to everyone who, at one time or another, sent suggestions of songs to add to the database: Adam D. Philippidis, Alicia Volkheimer, Angela Brett, Antoinette Powell, Benedict Leigh, Bob Vitray, Chandra Senan, Daniel W. Yates, David M. Bott, David White, Deirdre E. Welton, Derek Habermas, Do Peterson, Elaine Fingerett, Gail Marcus, Helen J. Ougham, James D. Brooks III, Jennifer van Sickle, Jenny L. McFarland, Jeremy Fox, Joseph R. Conrad, Judy Molnar, Kathy Barker, Kevin Bourrillion, Kirk L. Van Scoyoc, Lasse Folkersen, Leonard Braun, Lynda Jeanne Jones, Martin Zitter, Mary Rodgers, Michael Lindner, Michael P. Williams, Michael Peacy, Myron F. Uman, Tonya Hennen, Tyler J. Mott, Wendy K. Silk, Will Johnson … and others whose names I no longer have.

As a 10th-anniversary tribute to these “star volunteers,” their song suggestions are now marked with orange stars in search results pages. Mousing over a star reveals who brought that song to my attention.


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Catching up: STEM music in the news

And the Winner for Best Science Parody is… (BioTechniques)

James Clarke of King’s College London is this year’s Lab Grammy champion for his video “The Tale of a Post Doc”!

Singer Charlotte Church says physics rocks her universe (New Scientist)

The song Entanglement came about after a house party in south London. A friend’s friend is doing a master’s in something physics-related. One of his specialities is entanglement theory. He started talking about it and I just thought it was incredible.

Bringing mathematics to the community (University of Western Ontario)

Led by [Western University education professor George] Gadanidis, the Math Performance Centre … seeks to promote and support the celebration of mathematics through the arts.

Vocalist Gia Mora returns to Bethesda with an updated ‘Einstein’s Girl’ (

“There’s the Big Bang Theory [about the origin of the universe] … where everything collides and explodes,” [Mora] said. Cosmic dust coalesces into planets, and things start to settle down a little, much like falling in love and entering into a relationship over time. “I dived into it and thought, ‘This metaphor could really work.’”

Verbal Bling, Homicide, and Afrocentricity (Huffington Post)

Baba Brinkman writes: “When I was commissioned to write The Rap Guide to Evolution and challenged to communicate the key ideas behind Darwin’s theory in hip-hop form, my first thought was to go through my record collection and see if I could find any rap songs that already center around evolutionary themes. The three that seemed like the best candidates were ‘I’m a African’ by Dead Prez, ‘Survival of the Fittest’ by Mobb Deep, and ‘Hypnotize’ by Biggie Smalls. So I set myself the challenge of rewriting these songs to make them explicitly instead of just implicitly evolutionary.”

Saline native nominated for Grammy (Daily Register)

Rocky Alvey who grew up near Muddy and is now the director of Vanderbilt University’s Dyer Observatory co-wrote an album that was nominated for a Grammy Award. Alvey, who combined his lifelong passion for astronomy with his musical writing and singing skills, teamed up with two prominent female singer/songwriters to produce their album, “The Mighty Sky.”

RSM curator relishes his two loves: ecology and music (Leader-Post)

For some songwriters, combining music with social and environmental activism is a natural fit. But that isn’t the case for Glenn Sutter, a Regina-based folk recording artist and a strong proponent of environmental sustainability. “I’m very sensitive to not be preaching with music. For me, it’s a personal exploration and a creative outlet, for sure,” said Sutter, curator of human ecology at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.

Mississippi children learn with blues curriculum (Register-Guard)

Chevonne Dixon is one of the first teachers in the state to incorporate the blues into science, math, social studies and English lessons. So far this school year, the 9- and 10-year-olds in her class have written blues songs about the weather. They’ve composed short ditties about the travails of being a kid. And they’ve read classic blues lyrics to learn the challenges of growing cotton. “It makes them recall information, especially with that slow, melodic sound,” said Dixon.

Cedar Creek Middle School makes math fun (

With the opening lines to their song, Cedar Creek Middle School eighth-graders Grace Becknal, Isabel Arevalo, Ariana Alvarado and Jorge Meza explained how to find the rate of a change — or the slope — of a line.

Beastie Boys’ ‘Girls’ Transformed Into Girl Power Anthem (

One of the Beastie Boys’ earliest and most famously misogynistic hits has been retooled by upstart toy company Goldieblox into a girl power anthem that encourages young girls to have fun with science and engineering.

MWV #81 – Sheldon Campbell – The Singing Microbiologist (Microbe World Video)

Dr. Campbell teaches microbiology at Yale School of Medicine and he uses music to enhance his lectures. He has one song for every block of lectures he gives on a major topic.

Genius student hides Rick Astley song lyrics in quantum physics essay (

One inspired student took the art of ‘rickrolling’ to another level by inserting the chorus from the singer’s hit song, Never Gonna Give You Up, into an essay.

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