Jonny Berliner - science through song

Science Songs 2


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Large Blue Butterfly Blues

This song was written to raise awareness of an all-too-rare, conservation success story. The large blue butterfly went extinct in Britain but thanks to the work of Butterfly Conservation it has been brought back with Swedish stocks and is thriving once again.

The large blue also has a bizarre life cycle. When the Large Blue Butterfly is a caterpillar it feeds on wild thyme leaves. As this happens, it attracts ants towards it and the ants soon discover that when they tickle the caterpillar it produces a sweet honeydew that they find irresistibly delicious. Unbeknownst to the ants, this is the start of a cruel ruse on the part of the caterpillar who needs the ants to help it fulfil its destiny of becoming a beautiful butterfly.

It all starts going wrong for the ants when they take the caterpillar back to their nest to continue to tickle it for honeydew. Soon the caterpillar learns to mimic their scent and stops producing it’s sweet liquid. The ants forget all about it and leave in peace as it hides out in their nest for the winter. After this hibernation period the caterpillar needs to build up its energy for its transformation which is disastrous for the poor ants because the closest source of food is their eggs. The caterpillar gorges itself on the ant’s offspring, builds itself a cocoon and within a few weeks is ready to become a butterfly. But the poor ants are still smitten. They accompany the butterfly out of the nest, protecting it as its wings dry. The poor ants are then forced to watch it fly away leaving them childless, used, and with no source of delicious honeydew… until they find a new one next year of course.


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DNA (The Genetics Calypso)

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is a remarkable molecule. Made of two long strands of linked phosphates and sugars, it is effectively a set of instructions that tells a cells how to make proteins. You have the instructions to make your whole body in each of your 10 trillion cells. In fact, if you unravelled all the DNA in your body, it make a chain that stretched to the Sun and back over 600 times.

The code is contained in the links between the strands, which are made of 4 chemicals called nucleotide bases. The two chains can be pulled apart and the sequence of bases is preserved on each strand. This means the set of instructions can be copied exactly to make new cells or even new organisms. It is the basis of all reproduction and therefore the basis for all life. Of course mistakes can be made in the copying process which can lead to mutations, which accounts for many of the differences between living things.

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The chemical properties of an element are decided by the number of protons it has in its nucleus, which is also its atomic number. The highest number that nature goes up to is 92, which is uranium. When the atomic bomb was developed during the second world war, scientists wondered if they could make new, heavier elements. They could and they continue to do so now. The periodic table now goes up 118. The problem is that these synthetic elements are very unstable and their atoms fall apart within a few minutes. As a result, most of them are completely useless!

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The Christmas Power Ballad of Michael Faraday

Michael Faraday's discoveries revolutionised our understanding of nature and led to technological innovations which make the modern world possible. He discovered a love of science as a young man whilst working as a lowly bookbinder at a time when science was the preserve of rich men. By the time of his death, Faraday had helped to popularise science, making it accessible to rich, poor, men, women and children and uncovered the secrets of electromagnetism, the basis for almost all electricity production and usage today.

Some Faraday facts:

He believed that science should be accessible to children and started the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. They are still going today, more than 180 years later and are televised yearly on the BBC.

His lectures were so popular that Albemarle St had to be made into a one way street so that the carriages could get down it. It was the first one way street in the world.

He never made a penny from his discoveries. He believed knowledge should belong to everyone. If he had patented his discoveries, he surely would have been a billionaire in today's world.

As well as making the first electric motor, the first generator, inventing the concept of fields, developing electrolysis and inventing the Faraday cage he also showed that light could be affected by magnetic fields. Not bad going really.

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Relativistic Relatives

In 1905 Albert Einstein was an amateur physics and philosophy enthusiast, working as a patent clerk in Bern. He was also a genius. In that year he published three papers and in doing so revolutionised three different areas of physics but the most ground breaking one managed to overturn Isaac Newton’s system of mechanics that had gone unquestioned for over 200 years. And he did it without doing a single experiment.

By imagining what it would be like to fly alongside a beam of light, Einstein had imagined how the speed of light could be the same for anyone regardless of what speed they were already travelling. That is a weird thought. If you are on a train then compared to someone at a station you are travelling faster, but the person at the station is also not stationary. They are moving with the Earth as it turns, and moving around the sun at a phenomenal speed. In other words there is no absolute measure of speed as it is always relative to something else. But the laws of physics give a definite speed for light.

The only way to make sense of this was to throw away our ideas of time and space and have a world where clocks run at different rates depending on how fast they are travelling. We only notice these effects when travelling close to light speed but Einstein came up with some surprising conclusions: if two twins were to be separated and one flew in a rocket close to light speed, they would return younger than the twin who stayed; as they flew away, they would appear to get thinner; the closer they got to the speed of light, the heavier they would get; and energy and mass are effectively the same thing! Physics would never be the same again and Einstein was catapulted to worldwide fame.

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Born around 287BC in Syracuse, Archimedes was one of the most famous mathematicians and engineers of antiquity., Many of the stories surrounding his inventions and genius are apocryphal but he is credited with the invention of the double pulley system, the screw pump, and a method for determining pi which was not dissimilar to an early version of calculus.

Archimedes was also the favourite scientific adviser to the King of Syracuse who was very concerned with Roman invasions. Archimedes designed a crane with a claw-like mechanism that would pierce the hulls of the attacking ships. He also utilized the power of parabolic reflection by getting soldiers with polished shields to focus the sun’s rays on to ships to set them alight. However, Archimedes is most famous as the guy who discovered the law of buoyancy. The story goes that the king had a crown made but did not trust the goldsmith who made it. However, the king had no way of knowing whether the crown was made of gold or fool’s gold. When Archimedes got in the bath he realized that he displaced the water, giving a way to determine the volume of irregular solids. All he needed to do was compare the weight of the crown with an equivalent volume of gold and he could give the King the answer. On realizing this he jumped out the bath, shouted ‘eureka’ and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse. 

Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier who disturbed him whilst he was solving a problem involving circles. Archimedes refused to respond to the soldier as he was so deep in thought. The soldier took this as rudeness and killed him on the spot.