Tuesday, October 13, 2009

They Might Be Giants: Here Comes Science

When I was a kid in the 1980s -- willing and wanting to believe in pretty much anything, from ghosts to centaurs to Robin Hood to the angel Gabriel -- I never doubted one thing: science is real. I never had a problem with that concept. Some things can be believed or imagined or wished for, while other things can actually be proven. Easy enough for a small child to understand.

Apparently, many adults today (and, as a result, their children) don't care much for science, don't "believe" in it--as if it's a belief system and not a method that helps us understand the way things actually are. I don't feel like I have an accurate sense of how rampant this fact-hating phenomenon is, but what I do know is that I have DVDs of Walt Disney movies and TV shows from the 1940s to the 1960s that discussed and taught things like evolution and the Big Bang to an audience of millions of average American children and families without apology. Well over fifty years later, however -- in an age that you'd imagined would have progressed even further -- the band They Might Be Giants feel compelled to make a children's record that attempts to, in the long-awaited words of our president, "restore science to its rightful place."

The album is called Here Comes Science (following their first two albums in this children's series, Here Come the ABCs and Here Come the 123s) and the first song is called "Science Is Real," but it really should be called "Fuck You: Science Is Real." Only in this screwed-up decade can I imagine a need for a song like this. At first I lamented that the song might not reach its target audience since anti-science parents wouldn't let the children listen to it (unless by accident), but I imagine it's just as useful for children who will hear it since it gives them some ammunition on the playground to battle their fundamentalist friends (who, we hope, will also be converted by the indoctrinating jingles of this special music).

The song begins with the lines "Science is real, from the Big Bang to DNA, from evolution to the Milky Way." Right off, the fight is on. It continues with the fantasy/fact compartmentalizing I wrote about in the first paragraph: "I like the stories about angels, unicorns, and elves. Now I like those stories as much as anybody else, but when I'm seeking knowledge -- either simple or abstract -- the facts are with science. Science is real." Only in this screwed-up decade can I say that They Might Be Giants are "bold" to place evolution, the big bang, and angels in the first thirty seconds of their song. Old-fashioned Walt Disney, who expected science to give us a utopia, would be ashamed that this is considered any kind of progress.

The song goes on to explain what a scientific theory is: "A scientific theory isn't just a hunch or guess. It's more like a question that's been put through a lot of tests. And when a theory emerges consistent with the facts, the proof is with science. The truth is with science. Science is real." This seems to have been placed into the song specifically to combat those who say things like "Evolution is just a theory," not knowing what a theory actually is--as if the word "theory" would prove anything anyway. (What do these sorts of people know or care about proof?) TMBG emphasize this point later with the song "Put It to the Test" with lines like "Are you sure that that thing is true, or did someone just tell it to you?", "A fact is just a fantasy unless it can be checked," and "Don't believe it 'cause they say it's so; if it's not true, you have a right to know."

The song "My Brother the Ape" playfully shoves the "I ain't related to no monkey" argument right down its own throat. This song also shows how all life is related and how some things are more related than others. The narrator of the song (like the anti-evolution crowd) doesn't quite see the family resemblance, but eventually says, "But I'll admit that I look more like a chimp than I look like my cousin the shrimp or my distant kin the lichens or the snowy egret or the moss, and I find it hard to recognize some relatives of ours like the rotifer, the sycamore, iguanas, and sea stars." The concept that we're all branches of the same great tree trunk is further emphasized with the line "They say you don't get to choose your family, but there's no other one to choose." Everything you see on earth is your relative. (What's more godly than that?)

Unlike religion, science doesn't mind admitting when it is wrong. This concept is made apparent in the back-to-back tracks "Why Does the Sun Shine?" and "Why Does the Sun Really Shine?" The first one is a 1959 song by Tom Glazer that They Might Be Giants originally covered in 1993 and reprise here. (They also do a cover of his song "What Is a Shooting Star?" on this album.) This song says that "The sun is a mass of incandescent gas" and that "The sun is so hot that everything in it is a gas." But the second song corrects the first one with new evidence: "The sun is as miasma of incandescent plasma. The sun's not simply made out of gas... Forget what you've been told in the past... Forget that song. They got it wrong. That thesis has been rendered invalid." It's one of the funniest songs, and it's also a good lesson for kids: knowledge means that you can learn new things and prove things that you once thought were true to be untrue. "That's not what I was told" goes out the window (where it belongs). This album somewhat addresses a similar issue with the question song "How Many Planets?" (in the DVD that accompanies the CD more than on the album itself) which points out that Pluto is no longer considered a planet. Even something simple like this can prove controversial, showing that people simply don't like to learn anything new whether it's about religion or not. I heard college-age students say, when the news about Pluto was coming out, that they should just call it a planet anyway because "otherwise, they'll have to change all those textbooks." (You can see that not wanting to alter books is a theme common to the willfully ignorant.)

The rest of the album gives (slightly older) kids (and adults who have forgotten things) great tunes about the elements, paleontologists, blood, electric cars, photosynthesis, cells, velocity, computer assisted design, and more. The only time this album gets dangerously close to mythology is in the song "Roy G. Biv," a song about the mnemonic that helps us remember the rainbow's colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet). Roy G. Biv is described as "a colorful man" who "proudly stands at the rainbow's end." This mild mythologizing is harmless (and the song is great and I'm not blaming TMBG for anything), but it's the only time that it gets away from pure science and so it runs a small risk. It makes sense to anyone (including a child) who understands how poetry works, but I think history has proven that you can't count on that kind of understanding.

This song also says "You'll never see a unicorn, but you'll see a rainbow, and inside every rainbow is the spectrum of light." Sure, it might be initially disappointing to hear that unicorns aren't real, but what's more cool: a stupid horse with a horn on its head or an optical phenomenon that appears when sunlight passes through raindrops, refracting and reflecting light itself into a beautiful band of colors that cover the entire sky? Not only does science trump religion when it comes to fact, but it often trumps religion when it comes to beauty, complexity, mystery, and awe. And it's observable. It's real!


Watch the video for "Science Is Real" while you have a chance.
While you're here, read some comments to prove that I'm not too far off here. (Or don't, if you don't want to puke.)

1 comment:

Ted and Lori said...

Yep, I'd buy this album.