Society for Endocrinology - a world-leading authority on hormones

Issue 126 Winter 2017

Endocrinologist > Winter 2017 > Opinion

Don’t know much biology…

Kevin G Murphy | Opinion

Like me, you have probably been giving serious thought to the representation of the life sciences in popular song.

There are, of course, many easy parallels to draw between the pop music business and science. Pop music was once famously full of man-child mavericks, delighted to defenestrate televisions, to dunk Daimlers in swimming pools, and to repeatedly overindulge and overdose. But rather than being the new rock and roll, science got there first.

Pick up any book on the history of science and marvel at how past (almost always male) researchers happily dosed themselves with Helicobacter pylori (to demonstrate how stomach ulcers were caused) or LSD (to enjoy the bike ride home), and forced needles under their eyeballs (to investigate the perception of colour) or themselves into decompression chambers (to study the effects of various gases).

JBS Haldane (for indeed, ‘twas he who entered the decompression chamber) subsequently suffered from seizures and burst eardrums, but commented that ‘The drum generally heals up ... if a hole remains in it, although one is somewhat deaf, one can blow tobacco smoke out of the ear in question, which is a social accomplishment.’

‘Rather than being the new rock and roll, science got there first.’

We rarely encounter such cavalier attitudes nowadays. Pop musicians and scientists typically own intact televisions and eardrums, and both industries often stand accused of encouraging unoriginal conformists and yes-men, to the detriment of true creatives.

Pop music and science can both also be said to have very poorly mapped out career structures, and might both be described as ‘formulaic’, albeit in different senses.

These parallels have sadly not fostered the culture of mutual respect between disciplines that one might expect. Pop simply does not give biology the props it deserves.

Sure, prog rock titans like to steal scientific ideas upon which to hang concept LPs. For example, Rush’s ‘Natural science’ paddles through both biology and astronomy, describing how the ebbing tide ‘...leaves a trail of tidal pools/In a short-lived galaxy’ in which live ‘...busy little creatures/ Chasing out their destinies’. Less pompous, but only marginally less excruciating, is a song by Genesis on combatting the terrors of the invasive giant hogweed. This advises ‘Strike by night!/They are defenceless/They all need the sun to photosensitise their venom’.

More recently, Girls Aloud seemed pleased that ‘You can’t mistake my biology’ (in a track from the album ‘Chemistry’, no less), and followed this up with details of their own interests in linguistics and gait analysis (‘The way that we talk/The way that we walk’). And I also have a soft spot for the interface of science and pop in Bobby Sheen’s northern soul classic, ‘Dr Love’ (‘And in Love-ology, yeah/I have a ... a PhD!’).

Typically, however, artists take their cues from Sam Cooke, who seems wistfully proud when he croons ‘Don’t know much biology’ (or ‘about a science book’, for that matter). Belle and Sebastian show their artsy bias when they quickly follow ‘We do chemistry, biology and maths...’ with ‘I want poetry and music and some laughs’.

How can we convince the world of pop that science and laughs are not mutually exclusive? Perhaps we can make use of that most rock and roll of specialties, endocrinology. The age-old obsession of pop with the young, exciting, sex-obsessed and devil-may-care is usefully encapsulated in the popular use of the word ‘hormones’.

Who would quibble with Motorhead’s Lemmie, when he grunts ‘Dance, get your hormones fired’, that he does not apprehend the complexity of hormone release kinetics? When Christine Aguilera has made the effort to comment on the time course of endocrine effects, what kind of nit-picker would suggest that her understanding of relativity is in need of a polish when she sings of ‘hormones racing at the speed of light’? And who dares to suggest to Missy Elliott that, when she boasts (in obvious reference to the inherent pulsatility of many endocrine systems) ‘my hormones are jumpin’ like a disco’, that, in fact, hormones don’t jump?

‘The age-old obsession of pop with the young, exciting, sex-obsessed and devil-may-care is usefully encapsulated in the popular use of the word “hormones”.’

As regards specific hormonal systems, the male hypothalamo-pituitarygonadal axis has the biggest fan base. In the elegiac ‘Where did my spring go?’ by the Kinks, Ray Davies plaintively enquires ‘Where did my hormones go?’ and then, mentally connecting this to the role of dihydrotestosterone in male pattern baldness, asks ‘Where did my hair go?’ Artists as diverse as Sia, Bush and The Descendents have songs named ‘Testosterone’, and rap and grime braggadocio is awash with examples, from Dizzee Rascal to Rick Ross to Method Man, equating manliness with their own circulating levels of sex steroids.

However, misapprehensions remain. When RZA of the Wu Tang Clan claims ‘My testosterone stimulate her oestrogen’ we can only assume that he, no doubt familiar with the aromatase enzyme, has become confused over its precise role. We in the endocrine community must continue to work hard to ensure endocrinology is as accurately represented in chart topping hits as it is in our own scientific papers. To paraphrase Woody Guthrie, we must convince the public that ‘This gland is your gland’...

Kevin G Murphy, Science Committee Correspondence

Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Department of Medicine, Imperial College London, UK

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