Songs for Science Education with Jonny Berliner – Edinburgh Science Festival 2019

This week I’m at Edinburgh Science Festival as part of their Delegate Programme, and it’s been fantastic! The programme enables science communicators, researchers, public engagement professionals, teachers and creatives to come together to find out how the Edinburgh Science Festival team craft events, choose speakers and put together the programme. We’ve also been able to attend a number of the ticketed events so that we can use them as discussion points later on in the programme.

The first event of these ticketed events that I chose was, ‘Songs for Science Education’, which was described as a humorous and song-studded talk with science troubadour Jonny Berliner. Jonny Berliner - science through song

I’d never heard of Jonny Berliner before, but figured that using songs and music to communicate science would fit into my recent quest to further the impact of science communication with creativity. I’ll be honest here – before attending I fully expected these songs to make me cringe. I had flashbacks of the toe-curling songs that I’d been taught during science lessons at school that aimed to help me remember things, but ultimately resulted in me turning a vibrant shade of beetroot whilst I attempted to get away with miming the words. I was a quiet kid, and when teachers tried to push me by forcing students to sing these horrendous songs solo in front of the class, it made me dread attending lessons.

Anyway, I’m pleased to report that I found myself laughing, learning, and at times voluntarily singing along to Jonny Berliner’s science songs. Not only was I impressed with the way that the science songs made learning about areas of science that I’ve previously actively avoided (dark matter, for example), I was also happy to see Jonny discuss the important subject of ‘democratising science’, in his words the process of improving access to information, accountability of scientists, and representation of scientists. At beginning of the talk, I was unsure just how many of these issue that a seemingly simple science song could tackle. Perhaps predictably, again Jonny proved me wrong in his explanation of how songs can open science up to the masses by making subjects memorable, understandable, critical and universal.

The video below for Jonny’s song ‘Sexual Reproduction’ was a highlight as it allowed him to explain how he uses humour and diagrams to make his music videos just as engaging as his songs.

That said, I think my favourite song of the entire show was ‘Understanding Misunderstanding‘; a song written with Professor Abigail Williams from the University of Oxford, to communicate her work on 18th century English Literature.

From Jonny’s website:
“Abigail’s research looks at ways in which the misreading of text in the 18th century parallels many of the problems faced navigating new media in the digital age. Her research tells us that there is no need to worry. As people learned to handle new media in the 18th century, they learned to deliberately misread texts, leading to great satire. It is just a matter of time until we can do the same with digital information.”

I recorded a snippet of Jonny’s performance of this song, so you can see just how utterly brilliant it was. Also, the song was so effective that I found myself talking about Abigail’s research in conversation with a stranger this morning – we were talking about The Daily Mail’s reputation for bullshit science, which led to talk of fake news, and then suddenly I found myself humming the start of the chorus of Jonny and Abigail’s song; “There’s so much misunderstanding, fake news spread globally, how do you know what to think, when the web’s got no integrity?

Now, music is not my strong point.

I learned to play the keyboard when I was much younger, but quit when my teacher suggested that I sit the Grade 1 exam – my reasoning being that as a hobby, it shouldn’t be an additional cause of exam stress. I don’t think my teacher was very keen on me after that. That said, Jonny gave some excellent ideas during his talk for those of us that are less musically inclined than him; the act of writing a song is itself a learning exercise, and though I highly doubt that I’ll be singing about all things clinical trials any time soon, I may have a stab at writing a science song for my own amusement.

For more information about what Jonny does, and to access his portfolio of science songs, head to his website.

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