As a student majoring in the two very different fields of Cognitive Science and Writing Seminars, I am fascinated by the ways that one area of study can be used to deepen our understanding of another, completely unrelated, subject. This is one of the reasons that I like the musical Hamilton so much; by pairing a historical narrative with a musical medium, Lin-Manuel Miranda has helped me retain more about the American Revolution than any history class has.
As a result, I was excited to hear that the Physics department was hosting Consensus, a British rapper whose music is inspired by the science of particle physics. Although the Nov. 16 show – titled “ConCERNed: Using Hip-Hop to Engage New Audiences in Particle Physics” – might not have taught me as much as Hamilton, it was still a greatly entertaining performance and a demonstration of the arts’ utility, even in a STEM field.
Ibrahima Bah, an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy who helped organize the event, commented on how science affects society as a whole.
“I believe that science should be accessible to anyone, and scientific thinking is important for a healthy society,” he said. “To this end, it is important to find creative ways to excite people from wide and diverse backgrounds to explore science. In the rap format, Consensus is able to reach people who may not be the ones who would watch a nature special of nova, for example.”
This educational aspect was heavily emphasized throughout Consensus’ performance. Before each song, he explained the concept that had inspired the piece – antimatter, the Higgs boson – as well as the way that he had interpreted that concept into song.
Though he claimed not to be a particularly political rapper, Consensus often included social issues in each song and used his music to further examine both science and society. Antimatter and matter became two warring gangs; the standard model of particle physics was paired with commentary on social media and body image; and the Higgs boson was transformed into a mafioso style gang boss. These segments were not just informative, but they also demonstrated the impressive creative effort that went into each song’s construction.
The songs themselves were a fairly diverse bunch that spanned a number of genres. Some, like “Higgs,” were aggressive and energetic, during which Consensus ran through the audience and encouraged us to sing along. Others, like the aforementioned “Standard Model,” were a little more cool and restrained, which put greater emphasis on the lyrics and Consensus’ presence at the front of the crowd. Each song felt completely distinct from the others, and the performance as a whole showed off the artist’s considerable range as both a performer and as a composer.
Regardless of the musical style, every song was also well written and witty, with every line seeming to contain a pun or a reference to the subject at hand. In fact, it was sometimes difficult to understand all of the references, due as much to the speed at which they were thrown out as to the broad range of subjects that they covered. My favorite part of the show was when Consensus played the music video for “Method to the Madness” – in which he dances and raps through the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s (CERN) hadron collider – not because of the song itself but because the lyrics were displayed on-screen, which allowed me to process the references and appreciate the clever wordplay.
Overall Consensus put on an excellent show and proved to be a natural performer in front of an audience. In each part of the show – from the music to the Q&A where he spoke on subjects like his decision to incorporate science into his music and the impact that rap had on his childhood – he was entertaining and charismatic.
In fact, the only downside to the event was the fairly limited scope of the topics covered. Although Consensus did an excellent job of breaking down each concept in easy-to-understand language, it would have been nice if the explanation went beyond that initial definition. While I know very little about particle physics, I still recognized each of the concepts, but I walked away from the event feeling as if I hadn’t learned much. Still, considering the size of the event and the number of topics covered, the level of detail is understandable and ultimately didn’t terribly detract from my enjoyment of the show.
In the end, Consensus’ performance demonstrated his clear passion and love for both rap and physics. As a result, the event was incredibly enjoyable to watch and an excellent argument for the benefits of merging the humanities and STEM fields
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