Rock stars of science

By Phil Plait | November 17, 2010 7:01 am

Science is cool. I know that, and you know that. But how do we get other people to know it too?

We need to market it. I don’t mean we need to dumb it down, or slap a coat of paint on it or anything like that. But what we can and should do is tie it in with stuff the public already likes, and give it some associated cool. And what’s the coolest thing of all?

Rock and roll, baby.

Thus, Rock Stars of Science. This was an effort started last year by the designer Geoffrey Beene, who honestly loves science. He sponsored articles and some great photo shoots featuring scientists fooling around with rock musicians. 100% of the proceeds went to charity like medical science research. My Discover Magazine co-blogger and buddy Chris Mooney is also behind this event (he wrote about it last year) because, like so many of us, he’s passionate about science and about getting the public to love it as much as we do.

So it’s happening again this year: 17 scientists* are posing with rock stars (including Debbie Harry, B.o.B., and Keri Hilson), and an article about it will be in the December issue of GQ. I love these quotes:

Says Rock icon Debbie Harry of the scientific lifestyle: "You have to be very tenacious, very dedicated. And that kind of mind, that kind of specialness is incredible, and we should all be aware of it." Another featured artist, Jay Sean (@jaysean), commented: "I went on to study medicine. I was halfway through my degree; it’s when my first record deal presented itself…But I’ll always be a fan of science."

And the photos of the scientist and musicians are amazing. How can you not love a picture like this?


I can only wish I were that cool. And yes, I am insanely jealous. I love Heart, and had a bit of a crush on both Ann and Nancy Wilson when I was in high school. And, um, maybe I still do, a little. But c’mon! Barracuda! Crazy On You! Magic Man! Awesome sauce.

And that’s exactly how we should be thinking of leading scientists, too.

That’s why I support this campaign. I certainly know how cool a lot of scientists are, and how amazing their work can be. In the geek community we cherish these men and women. It’s about time that attitude spread to the world at large.

* I will note that one of the scientists in the shoot is Mehmat Oz, also known as Dr. Oz. Although he is in many ways a man of science, he is also a believer in a lot of New Age nonsense, as Dr. Steve Novella points out. Given my druthers, he’d have been left out of this. But the other scientists are top-notch researchers and Nobel laureates, so I’m willing to overlook this one oversight.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Geekery, Science

Comments (38)

  1. Mike Saunders

    Was hoping for somebody a little more up to date than… Bret Michaels.
    He was passe like, 10 years ago at least. I doubt young people who are choosing their careers now have heard of most of the people.

  2. Kevin

    So I supposed Brain May will be posing with himself? 😀

    Is it sad that I only recognize Debbie Harry and Heart? I’ve never heard of these other “rock stars.”

    Perhaps they should use real rock stars.

    (And Phil, I’m right there with you on the Heart love)

  3. Austen

    When I read the headline I thought you might mean this story:
    “After investigating the origins of matter and the fundamental forces of nature, a group of scientists at Cern are planning to release an album. Research scientist Professor Steven Goldfarb examines the link between physics and Rock and Roll. “

  4. R2K

    I love the clear display of religion on behalf of the rock star. You know how many cancers were cured by prayer…

  5. Oli

    What about Brian May? He’s a rock star ”and” an astronomer…

  6. RoseMarie Burke

    Are people going into science for the attention, or for the love of the science? Does EVERYTHING have to be reduced to the base level, about “the look”? The stupidy and crassness that surrounds the whole “rock scene” is probably not something scientists really need to be compared to or associated with. Surely there is some other way to get people, especially children, interested in science. I for one would rather see scientists, researchers, even amateurs with interests in anything scientific or encouraging positive growth of the human species portrayed as having a little more class, dignity and self-respect than these icons of blatantly indulging in negative and destructive behaviours. Please don’t endorse it.

  7. John Nouveaux

    or Brian Cox, scientist and “former” rock star!

  8. And don’t forget Greg Graffin, lead singer of Bad Religion and PhD

  9. Jamey

    What we really need is more songs *about* space, and science in general. Admitted, it’s harder to find the romance in molecular biology, or quantum physics, but Space – there’s definitely room there!

    1) Come Sail Away – Styx
    2) The Highwayman – Cash/Jennings/Nelson/Kristopherson
    3) Planet Texas – Kenny Rogers
    4) Children of the Sun – Billy Thorpe
    5) Third Rock from the Sun – Joe Diffie
    6 & 7) Space Oddity – David Bowie / Major Tom (Coming Home) – Peter Schilling

    We need people thinking of space as just another place to work and live – but we need to invoke the romance of the Old West, and the Age of Exploration. We need comedies about low-G prat falls, romances about *REALLY* long distance relationships, and tragedies of great heroism.

    Stories are good – SciFi as story-telling field is good, but music is better in many ways. Rhythm is well known as a way to aid and encourage memory, and we need this to be something people integrate into their lives, not just something they think about from time to time.

  10. BJN

    What a terrible tie! Geoffrey Beene is hardly the haberdasher for the hipster. And just what demographic is this campaign going after? Surely “Heart” is playing for 50-somethings in Vegas these days. Nope, their next gig is at the “Brian Boitano Skating Spectacular” in Sioux City with stops at sundry casinos after that. I hardly think that geezers like me should be the target for a campaign to make science appear cool, even if I thought 70’s rock and department store business apparel were cool — which I don’t.

  11. Gary

    Actually, no. We SHOULDN’T be thinking of scientists as rock stars. The temptation to go LiLo is too high. They can start believing they’re more important than their work and be captured by the adulation. Then the science suffers at the hand of maintaining an image. Take Jane Goodall as an example; she bares with the fame to keep doing research that advances knowledge. She doesn’t seek it out as a self-absorbed self-promoter which basically is what rock stars are. C’mon, Phil, stop gushing like some silly fanboy. Appreciate the talent, scientific and musical, for what it is and don’t confuse the two.

    And finally, just imagine how badly scientists would have to trash their hotel rooms while on tour. We’re talking mega-disaster, not just minor reconstruction. 😉

  12. OK, I admit it: is one of my all-time favourite rock performances. Also, reading through the comments is interesting. There is an obvious astronomy (well, OK, sci-fi) connection which comes up often in the comments. Although there is still good music being made today (both by older folks who have been around since the 1960s and 1970s as well as by younger folks (though I have to be careful when referring to R.E.M. as “younger” :-) )), one has to admit that POPULAR music back in the 70s was much, much better than today. Point all doubters to this clip!

  13. LuchinG

    The only good thing about the series “Numbers”: the phrase “¿Who said your brain its just for math?” Write a book: Cientific method to get girls, and thing like that.

  14. Steve Metzler

    I’m a huge Heart fan too, so the first thing I thought when I saw the pic was: “OMFSM! The Wilson sisters are Nobel laureates?!” Oh… not exactly.

  15. Keith Bowden

    @Jamey – Don’t forget Rush! (Too many songs to list here – but “Cygnus X-9”? Heh heh heh!)

  16. QuietDesperation

    I’m sorry, but the campaign reeks of “trying too hard to be cool.” :- Why not dress them up in Lady Gaga outfits while you’re at it?

    What we really need is more songs *about* space

    It’s about an entity that seeds life throughout the universe.

    And, I dunno, maybe this one:

    It’s about alien invasion.

    Too many songs to list here – but “Cygnus X-9″

    Or Cygnus X-1, even. And the one about the space shuttle from the Signals album. Countdown?

    Deep Purple had a lot of songs with space themes.

    Rocket Man by Elton John? 😉

  17. Leon

    I think M.C. Hawking has already done this sort of thing with rap stars. 😉

  18. Mike Saunders

    @9. Jamey
    You want there to be more songs about space
    But you only list songs that are very old!
    Maybe if you listened to music that has come out since then, you would find what you are looking for.

    Here’s a more recent one where the video is about space!

  19. Note that there is a Pink Floyd song with Stephen Hawking on backing vocals:

  20. Radwaste

    Hey, check out the haters.

    Fact is, Ann and Nancy are artists, and that’s a competitive market where if you do not perform, you don’t get paid. How many tenured performers are there, drawing top salary?

    Now, the thing to realize is that nobody has to lose for others to win. These doctors are artists, too. Just give respect where it’s due, and not because what somebody does isn’t to your own taste.

  21. Tom

    For something a little fresher, how about any of the Rube Goldberg videos by OK Go? Fun, fabulous physics.

  22. Brian Too

    I like it. It’s a bit low key, neither the scientists nor the rock stars are asked to do anything “off” or out of character. A bit like Seal voicing support for science. Both parties look good doing it.

    Fact is, it’s like one professional voicing admiration for another, in another field of study. All positive.

    Heart is a fave for me too. They are one of those bands that had a real hot streak early on, but they kept producing solid music, and still keep performing and recording. Any artist who can produce over a career of several decades gets extra brownie points in my book. I have respect for that ability.

    I mean, ultimately it’s all about the performance, right? And even a one-hit wonder can still be a wonderful performance. But there is something extra, something magic about an artist with a large repertoire, a long history of creation, and a backstory to add interest. I’ve gone to concerts featuring such artists. Sometimes they play an entire set and nothing is really a “hit”, and yet it’s all enjoyable, all worthwhile. The entire performance shimmers with light and life.

  23. Rizky Herucakra

    @Jamey :
    I would like to add 39 by Queen to the list. And yes, why there’s no Brian May ? I’m his Fan.

  24. Keith Bowden

    Ooops! lol (What the hell was I thinking? I’m sicker than I thought today…)

  25. QuietDesperation

    Hey, check out the haters.

    Yes, because no one is allowed to disagree. (eyeroll)

  26. RoseMarie Burke

    “Hate” is the wrong word. It is merely exasperation that everything in our western society that gets attention has to fall victim to the media marketing nonsense, and whether or not it is “cool”. I’m going to sit beside QuietDesperation and give another eyeroll.

  27. Cmdr. Awesome

    If I could plan an instrument and knew other sciencey nerds who could also play instruments, I would form a science nerd metal band in a heartbeat. It would be called “Doctor Sublimation and the Melting Points.”

  28. Missy

    I would LOVE a calender like this!

  29. Michael

    I thought that the rap would be cooler than rock and roll …

  30. Sok
  31. Nigel Depledge

    Keith Bowden (16) said:

    Don’t forget Rush! (Too many songs to list here – but “Cygnus X-9″? Heh heh heh!)

    I still use Cygnus X-1 to help me locate constellations . . .

    I set a course just East of Lyra,
    North-West of Pegasus,
    Through into the lght of Deneb,
    Sailing ‘cross the Milky Way.

    On my ship, the Rossinante,
    Wheeling through the galaxy;
    Headed for the heart of Cygnus,
    Headlong into mystery . . .

    Credit: Geddy Lee / Alex Lifeson / Neil Peart

  32. Nigel Depledge

    Rizky Herucakra (24) said:

    I would like to add 39 by Queen to the list. And yes, why there’s no Brian May ? I’m his Fan.

    Well, ’39 is (apparently) more about time travel than space, but it’s still a damn fine song.

  33. Nigel Depledge

    Cmdr Awesome (28) said:

    If I could plan an instrument and knew other sciencey nerds who could also play instruments, I would form a science nerd metal band in a heartbeat. It would be called “Doctor Sublimation and the Melting Points.”

    I once saw a band called Osmium.

    It’s a bit of a chemistry-geek joke, because Osmium is the densest element known it’s therefore the heaviest metal. Now that deserves an eye-roll!


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