The best explanations of CRISPR ever heard in 413 words, or 4 minutes and half of listening, is not an article from a prestigious science journal but a YouTube video where the wonders of the new technique of genetic modification are sung a cappella. We couldn’t not interview the author. Tim Blais was a fresh physics graduate when he turned its science-music into a professional activity by means of crowdfunding. That about CRISPR is probably his best video and has quickly become viral.
You are a physicist and you usually cover physics in your videos. How did you get interested in CRISPR?
One of the advantages of having a scientifically engaged audience is that often they’ll point you to what you should become interested in next. I had people in my comment sections for at least a year saying “you really need to do a CRISPR video; it’s really the biggest thing in biotech”. It took me a while to understand the mechanism (it’s been a long time since I did any microbiology) but once I got it I thought “wow this really is pretty revolutionary.”
What does CRISPR have in common with Higgs, exoplanets, the LIGO experiment etc? How do you choose the themes for your songs?
I’m attracted to ideas with far-reaching implications. The Higgs, from that perspective, is actually fairly boring. We knew it had to be there; it was just a matter of building the machine to find it. But these days I like focusing on topics that represent some sort of paradigm shift in how we think about the world and the future, and what we consider possible. LIGO represents the frontier of actually cracking the puzzle of gravity, and the exoplanet boom of the last 20 years has all sorts of implications for classic questions like “are we alone” or, maybe more saliently, “will we ultimately survive?”. For me CRISPR and technologies like it are the jumping off point for imagining humanity’s eventual ability to finely manipulate the code of our very being. It’s like being a program that suddenly gains the ability to rewrite itself. I don’t think we’re even close to understanding the eventual implications of that future.
The music of the CRISPR video is great, can you describe it please? What came first, the music or the text?
Being a parodist is pretty fun because you have all the most iconic songs of history as your canvas. So the CRISPR video is based on “Mr. Sandman” by the Chordettes, which is quite an old song. I enjoy that because I’m not sure people make songs with such an unapologetically optimistic feel to them anymore, although the truth is I’m mostly constrained in my song choice by what works lyrically. I really enjoyed crafting the music for this one because it was the first time I really broke from an original arrangement and made it totally my own. There’s a nice parallel with the material in that the music keeps adapting and changing itself, adapting and updating its own musical structures into a more and more complex thing, which is basically how these complex biological systems evolve.
The lyrics are funny and rigorous as well, it tells us almost everything in about 400 words. Did you ask for the help of a biologist?
I did! I started wading into the literature, quickly ran into phrases like “Cas9-sgRNA-mediated DNA cleavage” and thought, I need some help with this. Luckily Joe Hanson of PBS Digital’s “It’s Okay to Be Smart” has a Ph.D. in microbiology, so I was able to bounce a lot of questions off of him and make sure I wasn’t misrepresenting anything. It’s been really useful for me to tackle an unfamiliar field, I think; when you only interact with the jargon from your own specialty it’s easy to forget just how opaque it can be to a newcomer.
You tweeted “holy crap, I have potentially introduced CRISPR-Cas9 to 100,000 people. Woot!”. Congrats indeed! But what about your public, are they all scientists? Physicists mainly?
There’s a good mix. I have fans among esteemed physics professors as well as families with 5-year-old kids. Music is pretty good at transcending demographics like that. That makes it hard to figure out what level of complexity to shoot for, although maybe not as hard as you might think. 5-year-olds are unbelievably quick, and even tenured professors need time to grasp something that’s outside their domain of competence. I try to write my videos so that they would be interesting to me the first time I saw them, and not yet boring the fifth time.
I can recall several examples of scientists singing science (from Les Horribles Cernettes to The Amygdaloids). What are you doing, entertainment for nerds or science communication for curious people?
I kind of hope I’m doing both. What I’m trying to achieve is something that rejuvenates and stretches my own knowledge, musicality and creative ability, while also serving to intrigue the people who don’t know what I’m singing about and inspire the people who do. One thing I’m trying really hard to maintain is my ability to be earnest about all aspects of this project. A lot of science music aims mostly for humour, and falls broadly into the categories of “good science with comedic, moderately cringe-worthy performance” or “good music with science as comedy” (Weird Al occasionally plays within the latter category). I use comedy where I can, but what really keeps me going is the raw beauty I encounter in both science and music. At the end of the day, that’s what I’m trying to communicate to my audience.