Frontiers: Merging climate science & music

Frontiers: Crawford, St. George, Reubold

For Scott St. George, Institute on the Environment resident fellow and University of Minnesota geography professor, teaching people about climate science is music to his ears, literally.

St. George, College of Liberal Arts undergraduate student Daniel Crawford and IonE director of communications Todd Reubold shared their experience of reaching new audiences by turning climate science data into music in last week’s Frontiers in the Environment lecture, “Resonate! How 90 Seconds of Cello Music is Helping People Connect with Climate Science.”

In A Song of Our Warming Planet, Crawford translated the global temperature measurement data from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies into a musical score and played it on his cello, providing an audible depiction of global warming. The goal, according to St. George, was to find a new way to communicate scientific data beyond tables and graphs.

“I teach a big, introductory environmental sciences class,” St. George said. “This class has about 500 students in it. To be honest, it’s a difficult environment to get people’s attention; it’s hard to communicate what I want to share with students in this big class. So I’m always thinking about ways that I can reach students in this setting and reach them a little more effectively.”

When St. George first approached Crawford with the idea, the student was excited to merge his love of science and art.

“It was definitely a bit of a surprising offer,” Crawford said, “but I could immediately see the opportunity that it represented, being able to continue to use my passion for music and my knowledge of it to pursue this career in science that I’m looking forward to. I was also really struck by how novel an idea it was. Nobody had really done this before and it sort of represented that new frontier in science communication that I think was really important to tackle.”

Since hitting the Internet in June, the video has received nearly 125,000 views and has been discussed by the New York TimesThe Weather Channel and Southern California Public Radio. The music spread through Twitter as well, with celebrities and climate activists such as actor Mark Ruffalo and former vice president Al Gore tweeting the video to their followers.

“When I first heard about this idea of combining music with climate science, my first thought was, ‘This is brilliant. This is going to be huge,'” Reubold said. “You never go into a project thinking it’s going to be huge and something that people are going to be viewing all around the world – that’s kind of wishful thinking. But I just had a gut feeling with this one that there was something about this, that it was really going to work.”

The song has generally been well received and even performed live across the country. Not all responses were positive. However, Crawford says critics are mainly focusing on the musicality of the piece, not what it represents.

“There was an extremely good response from a lot of the scientific community, but it seems that a majority of the negative comments on this story in particular were coming from these critics of the music of the piece who seemed to be sort of missing the point that it was a means of getting across scientific data,” Crawford said. “It wasn’t necessarily a creative composition but just really rooted in the processes of nature. I thought that was something that was a little bit overlooked.”

Even if the song doesn’t show up on the Top 40 chart, Reubold thinks the success of this project may have laid the groundwork for more collaboration between science and art.

“When we put out research from the Institute on the Environment, there are certain places where we’re pretty confident it is going to show up, whether it is on the Dot Earth blog or Huffington Post Green, or something like that,” Reubold said. “But when we started to see this hitting on websites that you don’t associate with the environment, like Salon or some other ones like that, that was what was exciting to me: trying to break down those barriers to reaching new audiences that really never are even exposed to anything related to climate or the environment. And if we can do that through music, then why not give it a shot?”

Watch Crawford, St. George and Reubold’s full presentation online.

John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.