Researchers are punks

The fields of science and punk rock share some surprising similarities, according to the people who love both

By Alison McCook | February 10, 2011

Creativity, do-it-yourself individualism, anti-establishmentarianism, and attitude -- these are the central tenets of punk music. But to many scientists, they should sound very familiar.
Bill Cuevas playing guitar with Conflict
Photo: Karen Walraven

"Punk ethos is typified by a passionate adherence to individualism, creativity and freedom of expression with no regard to established opinions," Bill Cuevas, biochemist at the biotech company Genencor and music director at the Stanford University radio station KZSU, tells __The Scientist__. "Good scientific discipline is also typified by such qualities, including inquisitiveness and curiosity, with no entrenchment to established beliefs." Punk music became a force to be reckoned with by the late 1970s, embodied by bands such as The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and The Clash. This new breed of musician questioned authority, rejected traditions, and stripped music down to its essential elements. Importantly, punk is "about the freedom to express what you want to express," says Milo Aukerman, a plant researcher at DuPont and lead singer of legendary punk band The Descendents. In many ways, research is the same -- more so than in other professions, scientists can set their own schedules and decide what they want to study. "There is a certain freedom implied there," Aukerman adds. Both punk and science also value individualism and are not always embraced by society, notes Lane Pederson, a clinical psychology researcher and drummer in the punk band Dillinger Four. "In that sense, I think both of them have a subcultural aspect to them." Biology in particular values those who question conventional wisdom, trying to debunk what's accepted, according to Aukerman. "We're always looking for discoveries that challenge current thinking," he says. "Punk rock is like that, too." And Pederson, Cuevas, and Aukerman aren't the only scientists who've cultivated a parallel passion for punk -- Dexter Holland, singer of The Offspring, studied molecular biology in graduate school; Gregg Gillis, the man behind the ultimate mash-up act Girl Talk, was a biomedical engineer; and Greg Graffin, a member of Bad Religion, is now a biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Aukerman has made a habit of hopping between the lab, the recording studio, and the tour bus. Music gave him a break from science, after which he could come back to the lab with more "creative oomph," he recalls. For instance, when his postdoc at the University of Wisconsin started to feel dreary, he took a year off to play with The Descendents. "I was just feeling stagnated. And it got rid of the stagnation." Today, he identifies genes in __Arabidopsis__ that might be used to improve maize. He's using his vacation time to do a couple of shows this year, in part to satisfy his 6-year-old daughter's request to see him live. The truth is, more scientists would likely embrace punk than they may realize, says Cuevas, who engineers proteins that can be used to create carbon-neutral energy when he's not hosting a weekly radio show on KZSU. "Scientist or not, anyone with an open mind [and a] passion for life has the punk ethos." Scientists who want to get a taste of punk for the first time could start with compilation records of the early 1980s, Cuevas suggests, which include a variety of bands and styles. "Also, anything by Minor Threat is essential." Aukerman recommends the band Nomeansno, which overlays complexity on punk's typically spartan style. The best thing to do, says Pederson, is to visit a record store that carries punk and talk to the clerks about what topics (politics, sociology) and style (hard, soft, melodic) you prefer, and they will point you to something. Like science, punk is "really so much more diverse than people think." Of course, even if punk music and science share many elements, the comparison can be taken too far, says Aukerman. For instance, you don't see many punk musicians singing about science. "I will probably never ever write a song about DNA," he says.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Crystals in lab, rock on stage;
[3rd June 2010]*linkurl:Scientists as rock stars?;
[17th November 2010]*linkurl:Statistically significant punk rockers;
[6th March 2007]


Avatar of: Mary Anne Clark

Mary Anne Clark

Posts: 1

February 11, 2011

I love the juxtaposition of this article with "Your Momma Was a Lobefinned Fish."
Avatar of: Mike Waldrep

Mike Waldrep

Posts: 155

February 11, 2011

Interesting! I hope that everyone has a great weekend and I hope that they have a great Abraham Lincoln's birthday!
Avatar of: Cheryl Scott

Cheryl Scott

Posts: 10

February 11, 2011

And I thought it was just me!
Avatar of: Greg Crowther

Greg Crowther

Posts: 1

February 11, 2011

I'm aware of two science-themed "Blitzkrieg Bop" (Ramones) parodies -- "Electron Dot" by Willy Banta and "Ribosome Bop" by Ambiguous Toad -- but, in general, I think the world needs more punk music with science content!
Avatar of: Aaron McCoy

Aaron McCoy

Posts: 3

February 12, 2011

The biggest influences in my scientific life are Francis Crick, Ian McKaye, Mike Watt and Barack Obama. The biggest influences in my punk rock life are Francis Crick, Ian McKaye, Mike Watt and Barack Obama.\nI had no idea Milo or Greg Graffin were scientists, that makes me happy. Milo, should you happen to read this, hello from Alton Il, land of Judge Nothing.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

February 12, 2011

In graduate school, I knew at least two students, with musical talent. One had a BA in music, then went on to a career in science.\n\nI have always enjoyed all kinds of music, including punk. I have a son now in school, for Chemistry. He is an avid Punk fan, and enjoys the smart bands most. \n\nTo do research, you absolutely have to have a creative mind. The ability to think outside of the proverbial box. The fact that scientists can be musicians should not shock anyione :)\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

February 14, 2011

This Queen guitarist holds a PhD in Astronomy!
Avatar of: DUNG LE


Posts: 17

February 14, 2011

I see me there, I should try listening to punk from now ;-)
Avatar of: Ed Rybicki

Ed Rybicki

Posts: 82

February 15, 2011

Ooooh, that's just too tempting to leave...B-)\n\n"Your Momma Was a Lobefinned Fish\nJust tryin' to escape the dish\nAs the heat it just kept goin' up\nSo she passed it on down to the pup...\nAnd that's how we all came to be\nWin the struggle then you get to breed\nE-vo-lu-tion, e-vo-lu-tion!!"\n\nI am contactable if anyone wishes to record this...B-)
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

February 16, 2011

- then why does every single science article sound exactly the same. Moreover, Indeed, this data shows, Furthermore. . .\n\nLet's face it science follows a very strict formula. Example:\n\nPCR RXN MIX:\n1 ul of Primer F\n1 ul of Primer R\n1 ul dNTPs\n1 ul DNA\n2 ul of 10X buffer\n0.2 ul of Taq polymerase\n13.8 ul of dH2O\n\n\n

February 20, 2011

Avatar of: Robert Pytlik

Robert Pytlik

Posts: 7

February 26, 2011

Today I just have received an invitation to a concert of my colleague´s band. He is an Associated Professor of our medical faculty and has a PhD on micro RNA research ... his band is not too much punk, but very, very underground...\nThis is a lovely article.\nRobert

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