15 May 2020
#AGURocks is a series of posts by musicians who create science-inspired music and explain their process and inspiration while also showcasing their pieces. Learn more about contributing. The views and lyrics expressed in this post and song do not reflect those of Sharing Science and AGU. This week, Roberta Wilkinson.
I am a PhD student in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford (UK) and one half of the musical science communication duo Geologise Theatre. We (Matthew Kemp, a fellow PhD student, and myself) write and perform songs and theatre pieces about the science of the Earth, from fossils to climate change! Shakespeare famously wrote “All the world’s a stage”, and we’ve taken that (perhaps too) literally…
We love to combine science, story and song as an educational tool. In our most recent musical for kids, “What Killed the Dinosaurs?”, we are singing science detectives, who must solve a geological mystery with the help of our new recruits – the audience! A big focus of our work is using story to convey the scientific method – we try to show the process of developing and testing hypotheses rather than simply relaying facts, and we find that using narrative and character are great ways to do this. Our song ‘Iridium Anomaly’ recounts the groundbreaking work of Luis and Walter Alvarez, who proposed that a meteorite killed off the non-avian dinosaurs. We imagine a jazzy duet between this father and son team! In ‘Dino vs Mammal’ we stage a sing-off between, you guessed it, a mammal and a dinosaur! Who will survive the meteorite impact? There’s only one way to find out…
We started singing together 5 years ago during our undergraduate fieldwork. It occupied us through long hikes and scared off any creatures that might have been lurking in the bushes! Matthew is a bassoonist and pianist, and has played in orchestras and bands throughout his life. I sing, and have loved watching and performing theatre from a young age. We wrote individual songs at first, but we wanted to produce something more complete. It took us a couple of months to write the first version of our musical, but since then we’ve done numerous rewrites and performances, sought feedback from artists, scientists, teachers and audiences, done more rewrites, and even added in a couple of new songs along the way.
We’ve written various other songs about the science we’re passionate about, like ‘Climate Crisis: A musical flyer for a climate change denier’:
Before the coronavirus outbreak, we hadn’t put any of our music online, always performing our songs and musicals to live audiences. So we’ve had to adapt and learn how to record and edit audio and video, with no prior experience. We use basic USB condenser mics, with homemade pop-shields strung together from wire coat-hangers and old pairs of tights! We use the free versions of Reaper for audio, and DaVinci Resolve for video editing. Co-writing and recording whilst ‘locked down’ in our respective houses presents new challenges, and involves sending large files back and forth to iteratively improve the recording. The sound production on our YouTube videos was largely done by our skilled friend and colleague Brooke Johnson – his own sci-comms projects are well worth checking out.
We hope to produce some more educational content for children as schools in the United Kingdom (and in many other countries) are currently closed, so watch this space!
-Roberta Wilkinson is a graduate student studying earthquakes and active tectonics in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford. She is one half of Geologise Theatre (@wearegeologise) alongside Matthew Kemp (@MatthewGeoKemp).