Learning STEM from They Might Be Giants at the USASEF
Shawn Wasserman posted on April 03, 2014 |
Interview with TMBG’s John Linnell in preparation of the USA Science and Engineering Festival.

They Might be Giants: John Flansburgh (left) and John Linnell (right).

Later this month, Grammy award winners John Flansburgh and John Linnel of They Might Be Giants (TMBG) will perform at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC. In preparation for the event, ENGINEERING.com caught up with Linnell to talk about his work and its emphasis on education.

Engineers visiting the festival, particularly those interested in Design Software, may be interested in the song Computer Assisted Design (CAD) on TMBG’s album, “Here Comes Science.” The music video offers a great, though exaggerated, demonstration of how engineers take their designs to the computer and then into the real world.

Songs like CAD weren’t always a part of TMBG’s plan though. “When we were making the science album we had a debate about whether we were going to include applied science,” explains Linnell. “I think it was for us [TMBG] a very irresistible topic to talk about technology and inventions as opposed to just pure science. We had a science advisor, a curator at the Hall of Science here in New York, he was strongly trying to discourage us from writing songs about technology. But I think John (Flansburgh) really wanted to write this wonderful song about electric cars.”

Linnell explains that Flansburgh is interested in both electric cars and the namesake of Elon Musk’s electric car company, Nicola Tesla. “He has also written a song about Tesla on our last album. He is excited about this topic.”

As for himself, Linnell explains, “I would buy an electric car if it could reach my get-a-way shack in upstate New York. Unfortunately it is more than 100 miles north … so with the current available technology we would not be able reach that house from our New York apartment… it would run out of batteries before it got there … We are waiting for the 200+ mile battery.”

He adds, “They are selling millions and millions of Prius now-a-days, we’ve got one actually. So I am optimistic about the future. I think they’re going to eventually make them affordable and better in a lot of ways. I think everything is just moving in that direction.”

Like some other aspects of scientific education directed towards youth, TMBG’s album has been met with controversy. Particularly the first song in the album, “Science is Real.” The song appears (in this author’s opinion) to explore the schism between belief and science, particularly those associated with the right wing, in a rather politically correct manner. However, as Linnell points out, “We got flack online … Some people were very offended by that song. I’m not into offending people particularly but I think it was very good to state our position up front and let the chips fall where they may.”

Linnell adds, “When we did the science record we brought the notion that science is held up as a threat to religious belief and therefore you have a right wing suspicion of science. What I have seen is that it’s not just the right wing … there are plenty left wingers who are also very suspicious of science and technology; and not without reason. The sense that a lot of the ills of the modern world are connected to the miss use [sic] of contemporary technology … the best example is probably the atom bomb. These terrifying new innovations that scientists cooked up without any real debate about whether we should get involved. We end up unleashing a lot of genies that can never be put back into the bottle. And that concerns everybody. Not just the right wing and not just religious people.”

To that point, the album also does a great job letting children know about scientific misnomers, particularly those associated with the left wing; something that earned TMBG’s song “Meet the Elements” a spot on ENGINEERING.com’s Top 10 Songs for Engineers. The song is a particular must for children facing the daily barrage of ‘no chemicals’ labels in our stores today.

“I think it’s complicated and there isn’t a simple way of making the simple [consumer] choices. People want a label on the package that says ‘does not contain X.’ It makes shopping a lot simpler if you can make a quick decision … You have to be informed and that is a lot of work for everybody. There are similar debates about whether kids should get vaccinated … I think it is really important to get good information and not just to go along with the fear mongering … It’s a way of being responsible and obviously you want to know how it all works. I think people that have a blanket response to things that they don’t want, like for example vaccinations, are not just doing a disservice to their own kids but they are making a choice that affects everybody else,” expressed Linnell.

Science isn’t perfect though. After all, hypotheses are supposed to be disproven as new knowledge is uncovered. A fact well observed in two songs on the album, “Why Does the Sun Shine” and “Why Does the Sun Really Shine.”

“We weren’t setting out to demonstrate that fact but I think maybe it was a good illustration that scientific inquiry is an ongoing process. The first song was written in the 1950’s, not by us, so at that time I don’t think there was an awareness that the sun was not a gas … then more recently they come up with the notion of the 4th state of matter. It was a little bit comical because in the follow up song, the one we wrote, there is also a lot of disinformation which is part of the fun of the song. You know ‘the sun it not a miasma’ it just rhymes with plasma so that is why the word miasma shows up in the song,” joked Linnell.

Since 1982, John Linnell and John Flansburgh, his partner in song, have won two Grammy’s and produced 16 albums; four of which are for children. Additionally, their Dial-A-Song endeavor demonstrated they have the skill to make a near endless number of songs. Finally, their music has been featured in various commercial endeavours, such as Tiny Toons Adventures, Coraline, Dexter’s Laboratory, and perhaps most famously in Malcolm in the Middle. TMBG’s "best of" record named Idlewild will contain 17 songs and is set for a May 27th 2014 release. They can be seen at the USA Science and Engineering Festival on April 26th 2014.

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