Science Fair: An Opera With Experiments

Complete texts and program notes

Natural Phenomena

Text by Marie Curie, originally in French; translation by Hai-Ting Chinn
Music by Renée Favand-See

I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in the laboratory is not merely a technician, but also a child faced with natural phenomena that dazzle like a fairytale.

One of the key features

Text by Lisa Randall, physicist
Music by Matthew Schickele from
Short Songs of Science and Skepticism

One of the key features distinguishing creativity in science from other forms of creativity is the constraint that, ultimately, your models have to match reality.

When we started

Text: Steven Novella, neurologist
Music by Matthew Schickele from
Short Songs of Science and Skepticism

When we started to take a rigorous, systematic look at nature, with methods that control for bias, we found that almost everything we believed about the world was wrong.

Our Solar System

Text: Hai-Ting Chinn and Dr. Phil Plait
Music: Renée Favand-See

Our solar system was once a vast cloud of gas and dust
Suspended against its own gravity.
Something caused the cloud to collapse:
Perhaps the stellar wind from a giant red star,
or the blast from a nearby supernova
or a collision with another cloud—
Whatever the initial cause, the added momentum
helps our collapsing cloud to spin.
Centrifugal force and friction flatten the cloud into a disk.
Particles collide, collect, and gather;
Over some hundreds of thousands of years,
the conglomerations grow large enough
to attract more matter with their own gravity.
They form themselves into spheres
and claim the remaining dust within their orbits. These are planets.
At the center of our cloud, under the pressure of its own gravity,
the biggest ball of matter achieves nuclear fusion.
Sol becomes a star, and the super-solar wind begins to blow:
a gale of subatomic protons and electrons, blasting away the remaining dust,
and blowing lighter gases into the outer reaches,
leaving rocky spheres closer in: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars,
gaseous giants far away: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune,
and farther still, smaller objects, that never gain enough gravity to be called planets:
Pluto; the Kuiper belt, the Oort cloud comets...
And perhaps, a lonely wanderer, elusive Planet 9?
Our solar system was once a vast cloud of gas and dust.

The Amazing Atom

Text: Hai-Ting
Music: Matthew Schickele

Maybe you've heard of the amazing atom.
Basic building block of __________
Named in Greek for "indivisible," 
Since, divided and described.

Maybe you've heard of protons, electrons, neutrons.
Maybe you've heard of Quarks: up, down, top, bottom, strange, and charm.
Maybe there’s a physicist sitting right beside you,
Who can explain this better than we do.
But we're in the business of art,
So we’ll make a metaphor.
This theater is the nucleus of an atom.
We are all protons. Each of us is made of three quarks:
Three parts of our proton persona, adding up to a positive charge,
Which means we repel each other, electromagnetically.
But in here with us: neutrons. Neutral charge, also made of quarks,
helping convey the strong nuclear force, which only applies
at tiny distances in atomic nuclei.

There are [number of the evening]  of us here tonight, so we are the nucleus of a _________ atom.

Maybe you've heard that we're star stuff:
To make elements like the Carbon
On which life as we know it is based
We need the heat and pressure of stellar fusion
To squash six positive protons close enough
for the strong nuclear force to engage,
And to make heavier elements, like [element of the evening]
It takes higher energies, such as a supernova.

Maybe you've heard that the nuclear force
is 100 times stronger than the electromagnetic.
That's why more than 100 protons together
Tend to thrust each other away:
That's radioactive decay.

Maybe you've heard of electrons orbiting in a cloud.
You, a positive proton crowd,
Each attract a negative electron,
And they balance our positive clump with their negative swarm.
But though they are equal in charge,
Electrons are not nearly as large.
If you have the mass of a proton,
Your electron would be a sparrow. 

Maybe you've heard that matter is mostly empty space.
If you are a proton in a nucleus,
Your sparrow electron is in Orlando, or Memphis, or some other place
Some thousand miles away.
Since each of us attracts one electron,
There's a swarm of [atomic number of the evening] sparrows,
Whizzing about, surrounding us,
Flitting so fast that their tiny mass
Can never fall into our nucleus.
They also repel each other so strongly
That no one will suddenly fall
Through the floor, or walk through a wall
Even though it's true that matter is mostly empty space.

Maybe you've heard of orbitals, or electron shells:
The probability clouds
In which our sparrow electrons dwell;
Cotton-candy birdhouse hotels.
First they must fill the lowest levels,
2 on the first floor, 8 on the second, then 18, 32... 

Maybe you've heard an electron
Is a particle, and also a wave.
Every floor of this orbital hotel
Is a wave function, a vibration.
The greater the flock of electrons, the more complex the pattern.
The more complex the pattern, the more room for electrons.
The desire of these shells to be filled leads to molecular bonds:
The sharing of electrons between us and a neighboring atom.
Every chemical bond in nature, every atomic interaction,
Is a balance between proton–electron attraction
And filling/emptying these wavy shells.  

Maybe you've heard of the quantum leap,
When electrons move from shell to shell, whiz from wave to wave,
Absorbing or emitting a quantum of energy:
The exact amount required to "move" to the next orbital.
Shine a light onto the right arrangements of atoms, and electrons leap up—
Maybe you’ll see: they fall back later, and emit some photons, as glow.

The Canon

Text: Natalie Angiers, from The Canon: a Whirligig Tour Through the Beautiful Basics of Science
Music: Stefan Weisman

Of course you should know about science, 
as much as you've got the synaptic space to fit. 
Science is not just one thing,
one line of reasoning
or a boxable body of scholarship...
Science is huge,
a great ocean of human experience;

It's the product and point of having the most deeply corrugated brain
of any species this planet has spawned.  

If you never learn to swim,
you'll surely regret it;
If you never learn to swim,
you'll surely regret it;
and the sea is so big,
it won't let you forget it.

Of course you should know about science:
a great ocean

Sound Song

Text: Hai-Ting, based on a conversation with Debbie Berebichez
Music: Matthew Schickele

Ah! Can you hear me?
Ah. Can you hear me?
Why can you hear me?
When I say "ah," my vocal chord vibrate
Because the air from my lungs flows between them in a stream.
And it looks rather like [lip trill] when vocal folds vibrate.

They close and they open, steadily.
And when I sing "Ah" they close and they open 220 times per second,
And each time, they push air molecules, which then push the molecules next to them, and so on.
This makes a compression wave.
And when I sing "Ah" [220 Hz] the sound wave is one and a half meters long.
This doesn't mean each single molecule travels that far,
But that the distance from most compression to most compression is one and a half meters,
With rarefaction in between.
And when I sing "Ah" [440 Hz] the folds flutter four hundred and forty times per second,
Twice as fast as "Ah" [220 Hz] and the wave is half as long: "Ah."
The pressure wave travels through the air like a stadium wave through a crowd:
The stadium wave has traveled, but no one molecule has left its seat, except to stand up.
Everything's vibrating: in my throat, in the air, and in you ear, your eardrum vibrates
Ah. Two hundred twenty, four hundred forty, eight eighty...
Which your brain interprets as "Ah."

Harmonic overtones

Text: Hai-Ting
Music: Renée Favand-See

This bright line
a pitch we perceive:
and encompasses
twice, thrice, four times, and five;
within the same wave
comprising one note.
So fundamental to nature
the fundamental and its overtones:
in the nature of it
our minds find
ah, oh, oo, ee

a sweet harmonic song
singing with me
Ah, Oh, Oo, ee

Extracting DNA from a strawberry

Music: Conrad Cummings
Text: Hai-Ting, inspired by TheSciGuys webcast

Extracting DNA from a strawberry

Deoxyribonucleic Acid: DNA
Instructions for how all living cells grow, divide, and behave.
Encoded instructions to build a strawberry—or a strawberry blond.

strawberries, fresh, stems removed
Dish detergent
Sealable plastic bags
70% rubbing alcohol—chilled, if possible
Measuring spoons and cup
Medium mixing bowl
A funnel
A strainer
and tweezers

If you try this at home (and you should)
Do not worry—nothing's toxic
But don't drink the solutions we are about to create.
Just for your own good. 

to start:
1/3 cup water
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1 Tablespoon dish detergent
put the strawberries into a bag
and measure in
three tablespoons of salt water-soap solution.
Press out air and seal, carefully.
Now I need a volunteer. 

Protective clothing for potential spills and splashes!
Please crush these strawberries, salt, and soap into a fine, foamy paste.
It will take about about two minutes. 

Squish a strawberry: the cells will burst; their walls will break apart.
Within the walls, the nucleus, where dwells the DNA.
Strawberries are octoploid: each cell contains 8 sets of DNA.
By contrast, human cells are diploid—only two.
That's why we're using strawberries instead of you!
The inside of a cell membrane is lipid: that's grease to a detergent molecule,
Which has two ends: A hydrophilic head, in love with water
Whose molecules are polar (like tiny magnets)
And a hydrophobic tail that quakes in fear at H2O, but happily connects to molecules that are non-polar,
Like oil, or that lipid layer on the inside of a cell membrane.
The detergent's hydrophobic tail ensnares the lipid layer of the cell wall fragments,
and the hydrophilic head, enchanted by the water, pulls the bits away,
Like lifting oil off of dirty dishes.
The innards of the cell are left behind, including the DNA.
The salt in our solution makes it clump together.
How, and why? Because the salt creates a conductive ionic environment, of course…!

Time's up! Do we have a fine, foamy strawberry pulp?
Strain into a beaker. 

DNA was first isolated in 1869 (much as we are doing now)
But no-one believed that this simple molecule
Could carry the code for the growth, division, behavior, of all known living organisms (and some viruses!).
In 1929, Phoebus Levene identified four nucleic acids:
A for adenine,
C for Cytosine
G for Guanine
T for Thymine,
plus sugars and phosphates.
In the 1940s Edwin Chargaff noticed that amounts of A matched T, amounts of G matched C.
In 1952, Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase put some bacteriophages in a blender,
separated the protein from the DNA
and proved that DNA was indeed the genetic code.
Then Rosalind Franklin, with x-ray crystallography
saw a helix, and some rungs,
that Watson and Crick made a model of, and wrote
A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid, The journal Nature April 25, 1953:
And no, they gave Rosalind Franklin no credit at all.

Now 1/2 cup chilled alcohol:
Gently poured onto strawberry foam.
We do not want the two to mix.
Rubbing alcohol, less dense, forms a layer on top.
DNA is not soluble in alcohol: they will not mix together.
But DNA will pull away
from our squished strawberry solution
to gather in cloudy clumps
which we can collect with tweezers

Voilà: strawberry DNA
Deoxyribonucleic Acid: double-stranded helix, with rungs of base-pairs: A-T C-G
Millions in strawberries, billions in us
Encoded instructions for how all cells grow, divide, and behave
To build a strawberry, or a strawberry blond!


Music: Stefan Weisman
Text: Inspired by Natalie Angier from
The Canon

We don’t know how life began.
We don’t know if it was physically inevitable, given Earth’s geochemistry and the sun’s generosity.
We don't know what the first life forms looked like or how they behaved.
We don’t know exactly when life first life arose...

However life got started, one thing is clear: Life so loved being alive that it has never, since its sputtering start, for a moment ceased to live.
Through the billions of years since the first cells arose, life has carried on, and
the cipher of life is a universal code, written in nucleic phrases of DNA.
Had life arisen more than once, we'd see a multiplicity of codes. Yet we do not.

We look at cells from creatures living on the ocean floor, basking in boiling hydrothermal plumes, and we see DNA.
We pry open bacteria trapped in polar ice for more than a million years, and we see DNA.
Species arise, multiply, diversify, and die: DNA survives.

If not in hallucigenia, of the Cambrian Era,
Then in dipterus,  of the Devonian Age.
If not in Trilobytes, then in Pterodactyls;
If not in Dodos, then in you.
DNA survives, repeating itself, over and under, the tremendous unbroken thread of life.

The capacity to blunder

Text: Lewis Thomas, physician:
Music: Matthew Schickele from
Short Songs of Science and Skepticism

The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music.

Some people try to tell me

Text: Phil Plait, astronomer
Music: Matthew from
Short Songs of Science and Skepticism

Some people try to tell me that science will never answer the big questions we have in life. To them I say "baloney!" The real problem is your questions aren't big enough.

History of the Universe, Part 1

Text and Music: Matthew Schickele

That was the Big Bang.
This is the history of the Universe, to scale.
Each beat is 17 million years
At this scale, there are already galaxies and stars.
mark where we come along.
We’ll be here a while…


Text: Phil Plait for Crash Course Astronomy
Music: Matthew Schickele

The simplest kind of orbit is: just a line! When you drop a rock, it's very briefly in orbit. 
Ignoring the earth's rotation, which adds a bit of sideways motion,
it's close enough to say the rock just falls straight down, and is stopped because the earth gets in the way.
It's not a terribly interesting orbit. What if, instead of dropping, we throw?
That gives it a little bit of sideways motion, so instead of the ground at my feet, it hits a bit farther away.
If I throw it harder, it moves horizontally more before it hits, and then the Earth gets in the way.
What if I throw it really hard?
What if I throw it at the exact same rate the earth curves away underneath?
A rock thrown hard enough sideways will fall toward the earth, but will always miss.
Will fall toward the Earth, but will always miss,
going instead in a circular path around it, guided by gravity only.
It will orbit the earth in a circle, taking 90 minutes or so
to go around the planet once.

The speed of the orbiting object depends on the mass of the object it's orbiting and its distance from it.
The farther away it is, the weaker gravity gets, so it doesn't have to travel as fast to stay in orbit.
An elliptical orbit happens when you throw even harder.
It goes up "higher" on one end of the orbit than the other.
(The moon orbits the Earth on an ellipse, and the planets orbit the sun on ellipses.)
The harder you throw the rock, the more elongated the orbit.
But an orbit like this is still closed: that is, the orbit repeats, and the rock is still bound (to the Earth) by gravity.
But if you throw a rock (or a rocket!) hard enough, an amazing thing happens:
Remember, gravity gets weaker with distance; if the rock has enough velocity,
gravity weakens too quickly to stop it. The rock can escape, moving away forever. 
We call this the escape velocity. For the earth, it's about 11km per second.
Whatever the particular escape velocity for your particular cosmic location,
if you throw a rock away from it faster than that, I hope you kissed it goodbye first, cause it ain't coming back.

History of the Universe, Part 2

Our universe clock is still ticking.
Some 5 billion years have passed.
The disk of the milky way has formed,
and starts to resemble home,
but we’re not here yet.
Yeah, still a ways to go….

History of the Universe, Part 3

Welcome back to the Universe.
Over 5 billion years have gone, and the Sun has just turned on,
followed soon by the accretion of the Earth, et al.
It wasn’t long before life appeared, right about here.
These single-celled pioneers had the place to themselves over 3 billion years.
They still are thriving everywhere. You could say of the Earth, it’s not our, it’s theirs…
And then, some of them evolved to harness light to make sugars.
Photosynthesis begins. This is a good thing, unless
you are poisoned by oxygen.
Oxygen, free in the air. For most alive, this was a catastrophe,
but it paved the way for eukaryotic cells with their organelles, nucleus,
and their mighty mitochondrial engines.
Incidentally, it seems likely, that long, long ago,
mitochondria were bacteria. It’s a symbiotic prokaryotic-eukaryotic cell marriage.
Multicellular life gets going now.
After millions of years, simple animals,
and arthropods.
That was fish joining in.
Now insects, now reptiles,
and then the dinosaurs.
Mammals, birds,
and flowers! (Crazy how late they arrived, right?)
The dinosaurs are dead.
So ends our timely tour of the universe,
except for the last note
which contains all of human history.

I am looking forward

Text: Alice Roberts, biologist
Music: Matthew Schickele from
Short Songs of Science and Skepticism

I am looking forward to some quiet days in my bone lab, and in the attic of museums, looking at ape skeletons.


Text: adapted from texts by the Nasa Goddard Flight Center and Phil Plait.
Music: Matthew Schickele

This is animation.
Each frame represents one hour;
the whole, one year.
The moon keeps the same face to us,
but not exactly the same face.
Because of the tilt and shape of its orbit
we see the moon from slightly different angles.
In a time lapse it looks like it's wobbling.
This is libration.
That rocking and tilting is real.
It's called libration.

The moon's orbit is not a circle,
but an ellipse.
The speed varies,
but the spin is constant.
Together these geometries
let us look East a little more,
then West a little more.
And the orbit's tilt
lets us look South a little more,
then North a little more.
This is libration.
The moon's libration.

The Phases of the Moon

Text: Hai-Ting Chinn and Matthew Schickele, adapted from AstronomyCast with Pamela Gay and Fraser Cain
Music: Matthew Schickele

When we see the moon, the phases of the moon, what are we really seeing?
Just differences in geometry between the earth, the sun, and the moon.

This is the moon. This is the moon on its orbit.
My head is the Earth.
This light is the sun: it's shining on the earth and the moon.
This camera is you, standing on the earth, looking at the moon.
This is what we see, standing on the earth, looking at the moon. 

(One lunar cycle takes 27 days, 7 hours, and 43 minutes: one orbit of the moon around the earth. Of course the earth also spins on its axis, but that would require my head to spin, so we won't be doing that tonight.)

If the top of my head is the North Pole, the moon goes from the right to the left, around my head.
So I'm turning left. Now the moon is between us and the sun.
We see the sun, but the moon is dark: just a little light around the edges. 
We cannot see the side that is bright.
This is the New Moon. 

And sometimes the moon gets between the sun and your eyes: a solar eclipse.
But eclipses are unusual, occasional, because of the orbit's tilt.

From the new moon, a sliver of light begins to grow.
At ninety degrees is the first quarter moon, a half-circle in the sky.
While the light grows we say the moon is waxing.
And when my back is to the light, all of the moon we can see is lit by the sun.
This is the full moon.

And sometimes the moon passes into the shadow of the earth: a lunar eclipse.
But eclipses are unusual, occasional; just an occasional treat.

From here the moon is waning, the light we see begins decreasing.
A crescent of darkness appears on the moon.

(Past the full it becomes a gibbous moon. You can have waxing gibbous, or waning gibbous; more than half but less than full is a gibbous moon)

Third quarter. Now again, we see one side half-lit.
A third quarter moon, a waning quarter moon, a last quarter moon. 

(Galileo looked at the quarter moon through his telescope, and he saw shadows on the moon. He had no concept of craters, but he saw mountains, and discolorations; he saw that the moon was not some perfect celestial sphere, but just a rock, like the earth, just a rock. He drew pretty pictures of it; and it caused a lot of trouble.)

From the third quarter, continuing on in its orbit, approaching the new moon again.

Have you noticed that half the moon is always bright?
The phases of the moon are only what we see
From our place in this orbital geometry.


Some Notes on the MUSIC

Renée Favand-See

Writing songs for Science Fair and my dear friend Hai-Ting has been joyful and full of stimulating musical discoveries—as songs about science should be. Hai-Ting and I have been collaborating since we were in college, so hers is the voice I hear when I write for mezzo. I am thrilled to be a part of this marvelous project inspired by Hai-Ting’s love of science, theater and geeky music!

Natural Phenomena was the first song I composed for this project, some years ago when the production was in its fledgling stages. We sat around Hai-Ting’s lovely old round dining table as she worked out the translation of Marie Curie’s words from French into English and we talked about the different possibilities for a word meaning to amaze or to fill with wonder. I remember Hai-Ting’s smile of delight when she settled on “dazzle” and giddily passed me a little square sheet of paper with the text in her distinctive script. Set with the task of writing the song very quickly for a performance coming up in less than a week, I chose very simple materials—three stacked fifths for harmony, a vocal line that recites the text simply, and a spacious orchestration for the piano part to convey wonder and beauty.

I was very excited to receive the poem for the next song, Harmonic Overtones. Hai-Ting not only developed the texts in collaboration with scientists, but also astutely assigned them to her composer-collaborators according to each person’s compositional sensibilities. Every text I received felt just perfect. Some initial compositional limitations were easy to choose for this song; the vocal line pitches are derived entirely from the C harmonic series, which, as you ascend through the sixteenth partial, gives you some lovely chromatic notes. I did permit octave displacement of some of the higher partials so that the melody would fall within the mezzo-soprano range. With regard to harmony, I allowed myself some stretches beyond the C series in order to expand the color palette. Where the text talks about the way a string, while vibrating its entire length, simultaneously divides into smaller sections to derive the predominate intervals in the overtone series—twice for octave, three times for the perfect fifth, five times for the major third—I stacked each of those interval types to create richer harmonies. In the final long phrase of the song, the stacked thirds harmony becomes a linear bass line for our old friend the descending thirds progression, but with lots of spicy chromatic mediants courtesy of the cycle of thirds. 

The text for Our Solar System is comprised of three large sections: the first describes the original form of our solar system as a “vast cloud of gas and dust;” the second recounts the collapse and resulting spinning of this cloud that initiates the formation of planets; and the third relates our sun’s birth into a star and the clarity that results from this nuclear fusion—the “blasting away” of extraneous gas and dust not claimed by planetary bodies during spiraling activities of “centrifugal force and friction.” The overall evolution in this song is from harmonic opacity to clarity.

In the gaseous cloud first section, my goal was to create clusters, a chromatic conglomeration of notes that hover and float without forward harmonic motion. The primary pitch materials in this section are: the cloud chord formulated by pitches arising from a stepwise convergence of two lines from octave F#s in to a unison C; the planetary body inward by fifths figure; a slithery melodic line comprised of pitches associated with the gaseous outer planets; and stacked fourth chords. In this first long phrase, a rhythmic process unfolds whereby the simple opening pattern is repeated, but displaced metrically; with each successive repetition the rhythm is gradually sped up by stealing eighth notes from durations a quarter length or greater until the pattern becomes continuous eighth notes.

In the second large section, which describes the cloud flattening into a disk and spinning, my aim was to create a sense of rhythmic momentum and spinning gestures, while still maintaining a dense chromatic pitch environment. The sound result was a kind of spinning cosmic circus music with constant shifting between simple and compound metric grooves as “particles collide, collect and gather.” As the music in this section progresses there is a gathering of energy and flow, as patterns become more regular and the harmonic landscape simpler.

Following the climactic moment of nuclear fusion—the only moment in the song where the cloud chord is heard in its simple form of two chromatic lines converging from octave F#s to unison C—there is a reappearance of cloud materials before they are blasted away clearly revealing planets spinning in their orbits around the sun, our solar system unveiled. The order of our solar system is expressed musically in terms of both harmonic and rhythmic stability. Each planet has its own ostinato, which shares common pitch material amongst rocky and gaseous planets, respectively, but moves at different rhythmic rates corresponding to each planet’s rotational velocity—fastest for Mercury and slowest for Neptune. Sometimes rocky planet ostinatos are presented in counterpoint with one another, sometimes in combination with a gaseous planet pattern with striking harmonic results. The “distant planetoids” and “elusive planet nine” are accompanied by gaseous planet pitch materials and a reprise of the cloud chord, a smooth musical segue back as the text returns to the opening line, “Our solar system was once a vast cloud of gas and dust.”

Renée Favand-See
Portland, Ore
April 4, 2016