Bill Cuevas playing guitar with Conflict
Photo: Karen Walraven
Creativity, do-it-yourself individualism, anti-establishmentarianism, and attitude -- these are the central tenets of punk music. But to many scientists, they should sound very familiar.Read more: Researchers are punks - The Scientist - Magazine of the Life Sciences http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/57984/#ixzz1E2b3cjVA
"Punk ethos is typified by a passionate adherence to individualism, creativity and freedom of expression with no regard to established opinions," Bill Cuevas, biochemist at the biotech company Genencor and music director at the Stanford University radio station KZSU, tells The Scientist. "Good scientific discipline is also typified by such qualities, including inquisitiveness and curiosity, with no entrenchment to established beliefs."
Punk music became a force to be reckoned with by the late 1970s, embodied by bands such as The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and The Clash. This new breed of musician questioned authority, rejected traditions, and stripped music down to its essential elements.
Importantly, punk is "about the freedom to express what you want to express," says Milo Aukerman, a plant researcher at DuPont and lead singer of legendary punk band The Descendents. In many ways, research is the same -- more so than in other professions, scientists can set their own schedules and decide what they want to study. "There is a certain freedom implied there," Aukerman adds.
Both punk and science also value individualism and are not always embraced by society, notes Lane Pederson, a clinical psychology researcher and drummer in the punk band Dillinger Four. "In that sense, I think both of them have a subcultural aspect to them."
Biology in particular values those who question conventional wisdom, trying to debunk what's accepted, according to Aukerman. "We're always looking for discoveries that challenge current thinking," he says. "Punk rock is like that, too."
And Pederson, Cuevas, and Aukerman aren't the only scientists who've cultivated a parallel passion for punk -- Dexter Holland, singer of The Offspring, studied molecular biology in graduate school; Gregg Gillis, the man behind the ultimate mash-up act Girl Talk, was a biomedical engineer; and Greg Graffin, a member of Bad Religion, is now a biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Aukerman has made a habit of hopping between the lab, the recording studio, and the tour bus. Music gave him a break from science, after which he could come back to the lab with more "creative oomph," he recalls. For instance, when his postdoc at the University of Wisconsin started to feel dreary, he took a year off to play with The Descendents. "I was just feeling stagnated. And it got rid of the stagnation."
Today, he identifies genes in Arabidopsis that might be used to improve maize. He's using his vacation time to do a couple of shows this year, in part to satisfy his 6-year-old daughter's request to see him live.
The truth is, more scientists would likely embrace punk than they may realize, says Cuevas, who engineers proteins that can be used to create carbon-neutral energy when he's not hosting a weekly radio show on KZSU. "Scientist or not, anyone with an open mind [and a] passion for life has the punk ethos."
Scientists who want to get a taste of punk for the first time could start with compilation records of the early 1980s, Cuevas suggests, which include a variety of bands and styles. "Also, anything by Minor Threat is essential." Aukerman recommends the band Nomeansno, which overlays complexity on punk's typically spartan style.
The best thing to do, says Pederson, is to visit a record store that carries punk and talk to the clerks about what topics (politics, sociology) and style (hard, soft, melodic) you prefer, and they will point you to something. Like science, punk is "really so much more diverse than people think."
Of course, even if punk music and science share many elements, the comparison can be taken too far, says Aukerman. For instance, you don't see many punk musicians singing about science. "I will probably never ever write a song about DNA," he says.