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The e-mail arrived in David Kaiser’s inbox late last year. “Would you like to meet an internationally-renowned hip-hop artist?” the subject beckoned. “There’s only one response to that,” says Kaiser, the Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science at MIT. “And that’s, ‘Yes, how can I help?’”
With that, one of the most interdisciplinary collaborations of Kaiser’s career was born. In December, he made the acquaintance of GZA, a founding member of legendary rap group the Wu-Tang Clan. At the time, GZA was in the planning stages for an album entitled “Dark Matter,” which as reported in this week’s issue is inspired by science in general and the quantum world and the cosmos in particular. GZA and Kaiser have sat down twice for freewheeling conversations about quantum theory and cosmology. Together with three other physicists, they’ve even discussed the similarities and differences in how budding rappers and budding academicians seek out mentors. Kaiser’s just one of the many scientists with whom GZA, a.k.a. Gary Grice, has powwowed about science. The list includes some of the most illustrious names in the business, including MIT marine biologist Penny Chisholm and Hayden Planetarium director Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
Of course, it’s far from the first time someone’s rapped about chemistry. We’ve covered chemists who produce tracks with a college-chemistry-major education bent. And as reader Barney Grubbs, an associate professor of chemistry at Stony Brook University, points out, Sacramento hip-hop duo Blackalicious produced a number called “Chemical Calisthenics”.
But that music lacks the public outreach mission that GZA says “Dark Matter” has. When the album drops this fall, it will come with a companion illustrated book, and possibly also a glossary, the Wall Street Journal reports. “Neil DeGrasse Tyson calls himself a ‘popularizer of science,’ ” GZA says. “I would like to be that someday as well.”
Crafting lyrics for “Dark Matter” will be about more than just random utterances of scientific terms to fit a rhythm, GZA adds. In fact, he says words’ meanings have always been integral to his creative process. Nicknamed “The Genius,” GZA is known for lyrics that refer to philosophy and chess in addition to science, and a voracious curiosity about many fields. “I would never force in a term–science-related or not– just because it seems right,” he says.
Still, “Dark Matter” is likely to become a talking point among chemists who get frustrated that science is portrayed inaccurately in the entertainment world. When it comes to balancing scientific accuracy and artistry, GZA says he stands in the middle. “I think it’s important that science be represented but it should be accurate, particularly because shows hire scientists as consultants,” he says. “As an avid chess player, I might notice errors on the screen on a chess board, but it wouldn’t necessarily get under my skin as a viewer. But if I were the director, I would absolutely correct it.”
GZA hasn’t spoken to any chemists– yet. But he’s certainly open to the idea. In other words, Newscripts readers, keep an eye on your e-mail.