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Zero Gravity: the Lighter Side of Science

Physics Songs For the Technically Inclined

They might not make the Top 40 pop charts, but physics songs are a great deal of fun. More than 250 of them can be found online—many with online recordings—and are catalogued and organized at www.PhysicsSongs.org. A sampling is below:

The Snell's Law Song

Tune: Sweet Betsy from Pike (traditional)
Words: Marian McKenzie and Walter F. Smith

Come and listen and learn, I've a story to tell,
I sing of the genius of Willebord Snell
A mathematician who lived long ago
In the Netherlands where the Rhine river does flow.

He set for his mind occupations of worth,
Improved navigation and measured the Earth.
He gave us the sine law, that wonderful guy,
And he made more precise calculations of pi.

Singin' n1 sine theta-sub-1, hey, hey, hey,
Equals n2 sine theta-sub-2, hip hooray!

His greatest feat came in Sixteen Twenty-One,
When optics as science was really begun.
While flashes of lightning illumined his page,
He wrote down Snell's law, his great gift to the age.

So if you wear glasses or like to fry ants,
Be grateful your lenses were not made by chance.
Astronomers hail him with each newfound star.
Microscopists toast him from each sleazy bar.


Now some credit Harriot, others Descartes,
Both studied refraction, and both were real smart.
But we prefer Willebrod van Roijen Snell—
He laid down the law, and he did it darn well.


And here is one of the earliest physics songs, written by James Clerk Maxwell, a parody of the poem "Comin' Through the Rye" by Robert Burns**:
** Dialect translations: "gin" = "if"; "ilka" = "every"; "ane" = "one"; "hae" = "have"; "a" = "all"; "ken" = "know"; "waur" = "worse".

Gin a body meet a body
Flyin' through the air.
Gin a body hit a body,
Will it fly? And where?
Ilka impact has its measure,
Ne'er a ane hae I,
Yet a' the 'ads they measure me,

Or, at least, they try.

Gin a body meet a body
Altogether free,
How they travel afterwards
We do not always see.
Ilka problem has its method
By analytics high;
For me, I ken na ane o' them,
But what the waur am I?

Finally, many physics songs are about research and the life of the researcher. Below is the final stanza from a song called "Placement," recorded in 1974 by Professor Arthur Roberts and other members of the physics department at the University of Iowa. The song concerns the career choices facing physicists after World War II, with words and original music written by Roberts.

The time is for decision;
Well, this is my position:
I don't wanna play
For pay from RCA,
I don't wanna work for Bell Labs,
I ain't been contemplatin'
Locatin' out in Dayton.
Ditto ditto Naval Ord Labs.
I don't wanna work for Westinghouse,
They ain't got no sex appeal.
I don't like the universities,
They ain't got no checks appeal!
I don't get apoplectic
For General Electric,
I don't care for NRL.
I don't wanna work for anyone,
Everyone can go to...the Watson Labs.
Ain't no place I wanna go—exceptin' fishin',
Fishin's what I wanna do—and not uranium,
Fishin's what I wanna do.

—Submitted by Walter F. Smith

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette