Science-fiction punk band agrees with the National Review on at least one thing

 Ben Wiehe

Ben Wiehe

So the lyrics aren’t exactly poetry, but I’m listening to the Phenomenauts’ “I’m With Neil” as I write this. Which is kind of hard both because this song has to be cranked to be appreciated, and the spliced-in Neil deGrasse Tyson clips are hard to type to.

The music of “I’m With Neil” hearkens back to late ‘70s and early 80’s punk and new wave. Personally, I hear the influence of Devo, a band that also incorporated scientific themes into lyrics and song titles (and even their name, a play on evolution).

The musical styling of the Phenomenauts may derive from the ’70s, but there are decidedly new things going on here that fit neatly into the Evolving Culture of Science Engagement conversation.

Like some other examples of creative science engagement these days, the song is unabashedly exuberant and silly. The video production is gleefully amateurish. The scientific credentials of the creators—with the notable exception of Dr. Tyson’s quotes—are completely unknown. It’s safe to assume that the Phenomenauts didn’t have educational impact on their minds at the time, but instead made this because it fired them up and was fun.

All of this adds up to a certain kind of science engagement, and a catchy kind at that. It places entertainment value—and the party—first, though the message is an inherent part of what is being celebrated. It is also explicitly about cultural identity formation: “I’m With Neil” is less about science than about belonging to the in-group that is the self-identified Neil fan club.

There are many potentially positive and powerful outcomes flowing from this kind of engagement: the spontaneous, bottom-up embrace of an outspoken scientist as a cultural icon; the message that science and scientific perspectives are worth celebrating with reckless abandon; and the reinforcement that others are on your side.

However, such engagement isn’t without its tensions and baggage. Just look at the Tyson quotes selected for the song. The clips include him complaining that public funds are being spent in a way that is “removing the only thing that gives people something to dream about tomorrow,” and his claim that some arguments for the existence of god turn god into “an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance.”

These quotes may fire you up just like the Phenomenauts. But as we explore the changing landscape of science engagement it seems difficult at times to find territory that hasn’t already been scorched by the Culture Wars. If you doubt their influence here, consider that the last Neil quote is lifted from an interview clip whose YouTube title is, “Neil deGrasse Tyson destroys Bill O’Reilly.”

The National Review also plays its part in reminding us of the Culture War implications, calling Neil deGrasse Tyson “the fetish and totem of the extraordinarily puffed-up ‘nerd’ culture that has of late started to bloom across the United States.” The Review goes on to quote a “pop-culture writer” saying that “science and ‘geeky’ subjects are perceived as being hip, cool and intellectual.” That may be music to your ears, or it may mean you think America has a “nerd problem.”

If you’re not sure, why don’t you meet me at the Bay Area Science Festival this October to take in a Phenomenauts show and decide for yourself.

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Ben Wiehe

The Science Festival Alliance is dedicated to encouraging more and better science festivals everywhere, and began in 2009 with a 3-year grant from the National Science Foundation. Ben was previously Outreach Program Director at WGBH, the public media organization, where he supported the grassroots growth of science cafes. His experience includes education and fundraising in museums, natural parks, and public schools. He received his MA in the social sciences from the University of Chicago, and holds a degree in philosophy and physics from Bowdoin College.