music / Columns

The Top 5 Science Songs

October 6, 2016 | Posted by David Hayter

It’s that time of year again, the moment when the world comes together to honor those making a genuine contribution to human advancement… and some economists whose theories are normally disproved within a year (I kid, sort of). Yes it’s Nobel Prize season and we’ve already seen awards go to the team behind the world’s tiniest robots, a cell biologist by the name of Yoshinori Ohsumi and another trio who discover topological order (yes we are still learning new things about matter, each and every year).

So to honor these fine fellows, here at 411 we’re going to dedicate our Top 5 songs list to science and scientists.

There is only one rule:

1) The song has to address science or scientific struggle in its lyric sheet or composition, not merely in its title or in the band name.

Honestly that’s it. We’re keeping it simply this week and I’m happy to report, compared to last week, there are a surprisingly large number of tracks to chose from.

5. “Natural Science” by Rush [1980]

Oh come, come – did you really think we were going to have a science Top 5 without a little dose of Rush? Sure, the Canadian prog-Gods typically prefer Science Fiction to science fact (and this song veers into the speculative category), but “Natural Science” is wonderful trip through time and space. Starting at the dawn of creation with creatures crawling out the primordial goop, the band drives headlong into the enlightenment, machine age and computer age before departing for – all together now – a futuristic dystopian wasteland (of course!). Some might argue that the science is secondary to Rush’s technical wizardry, but the band actually attempt to evolve with the song’s timeline mirroring gyros, helixes and intricate (and occasionally crunching) machinery in their playing.

4. “Weird Science” by Oingo Boingo [1985]

I’m only including one 80s novelty hit, so apologies to Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science”, but “Weird Science” wins the day. Okay, so perhaps I’m a little biased, I loved the film as a kid so I’ve had this hook imbedded in my subconscious for a very long time. The theme is also interesting – sure the science is absolute nonsense – but who can’t dig the notion of a creepy scientist being shunned for creating a thing that should not be. It could be a smoking hot starlet (as in the movie) or it could be something that fundamentally undermines our cultural assumptions (like cloning or the recent discovery of epigenetics). Most importantly of all, “Weird Science” rocks pretty hard, its killer opening line and unforgettable hook triumph over Oingo Boingo’s gimmicky production choices.

3. “Rocket Man” by Elton John [1972]

Be warned, a theme is about to develop at a rapid pace. The final three songs on this countdown focus intensely on the human experiences behind cutting edge science: the solace, the sacrifice and the fear that homo sapiens face when trying to break the boundaries of human knowledge and experience. “Rocket Man” (like the song that follows it) is a product of the space age. Elton John dwells on what his protagonist is leaving behind while capturing the glory of what the rocket man is seeking to achieve. When the minor keys emerge and the bittersweet cries of “I think its gonna be a long, long time” emerge at the track’s conclusion, we’re not saddened, John has steeled himself – the sorrow of waving goodbye to his wife has passed, but so has the elation of take off – our virtuous explorer is simply facing the facts: without regret, he’s destined to float in his tin can.

Before we move on, it is worth pointing out the brilliance of John’s songwriting. The self-recriminating sorrow of his lyricism is staggering. Freed from responsibility his spaceman is able to appraise himself and his parenting with shocking honest: “there’s no one there to raise them – if you did”. How’s that for a sting in the tale?

2. “Space Oddity” by David Bowie [1969]

The fitting coda to the 60s: the summer of love had long since turned bloody and black, while the science that freed the mind’s potential (LSD) was producing more bad trips than day-glo dreams. Into this contorted headspace came the star who would come to define the 70s. David Bowie captured the paranoia that was creeping in at fringes of our collective consciousness with this gorgeous ditty about an astronaut stranded in space: sitting in a tin can, quaking with fear as he faces the unknown and sighings as he looks down at a piddling and unimpressive earth. The song might be a mirror for a growing sense of atomized societal isolation, but it is also a fabulous science song – a reminder that our best minds are sent out to float in space, cold and alone, for our betterment. Over here in the UK we got a reminder of this fact very recently, when our own hero, Tim Peake, returned from the International Space Station and reunited with his family.

1. “Race For The Prize” by The Flaming Lips [1999]

From the spellbinding Soft Bulletin our top spot belongs to “Race For The Prize”: a endearing slice of softly, softly psych-pop built around a rock solid narrative. I honestly couldn’t think of a more perfect song than this to celebrate our Nobel Prize Winners. “Race For The Prize” tells the tale of two scientists sacrificing their family lives and their health to create a cure for all mankind – it’s a noble pursuit, but a brutal business. Both Scientists scrap and claw, for only one will go down as the next Charles Darwin – the other researcher, despite his brilliance, will do well to be remembered as fondly as Alfred Russel Wallace (and his family may well not forgive his distance). Fame, however, is not the goal. This is all about broadening human horizons inspite of the costs and The Lips summon a sumptuous arrangement that bursts like the first beams of a sunrise over the horizon (or perhaps I should say it splits like an atom?). This is dreamy music for fantasy fulfillers: an ode to moments missed and memories lost in the righteous chase that never loses sight of the grandeur of achievement itself.

Remember to share your favorite Science songs in the comments below.