How does a master’s physics student create a Higgs boson-based parody of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” that goes viral and gets featured in popular science magazines and blogs? We sat down with Tim Blais to learn more about the personal experiences leading to his musical and scientific project, “A Capella Science”.
McGill Daily: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself: where you’re from, your childhood, and other experiences that in hindsight you think might have led you to where you are now?
Tim Blais: I grew up in a family of five in the little town of Hudson, Quebec, twenty minutes west of the island of Montreal. My childhood was pretty full of music; I started experimenting with the piano, figuring out songs my older siblings were playing, when I was about four, and soon got actual piano lessons. My mom also ran, and continues to run, our local church choir, so from the time I was three I was singing in front of people as well. Also at about three or four a kid in my preschool introduced me to Bill Nye the Science Guy, which became the only TV I watched for about six years. After kindergarten I didn’t go to school until Grade 10, but was homeschooled by my parents. We had a very multifaceted way of learning […] that I think allowed me to see the big picture of things without getting bogged down in the horrible little details that are often the stumbling block when you start learning something. That gave me a fascination with science that’s essentially carried me through a science DEC and one-and-a-half university degrees. But my parents have always been super cool about not pressuring us kids to be anything in particular, and now to show for it they’ve got an emerging rock star – my brother, Tom; a dedicated speech pathologist – my sister, Mary-Jane; and me, researcher in incomprehensible physics and recently popular internet fool. I think they did alright.
MD: Your Facebook page references “years of tension between [your] creative and academic side.” When did this tension arise?
TB: The [three] things that always came most naturally to me were music, science, and math, but of those [three] I never had the feeling that I wanted to study music; it was too fun, and too playful, for me to want to ruin it with rigorous study. That continued through high school, where I was top of my science classes but also spent most lunch breaks playing music with friends. […] My pursuit of academia has always been largely based on questions I’d ask myself and be unable to find the answers to. But in the middle of CEGEP, my long-time bandmate and brother, Tom, moved to Vancouver to try to make it as a musician and I realized there was a big part of me that would love to follow him, or at least follow that path. But I still had too many questions, so I continued on to an honours physics undergrad at McGill, and then a master’s degree when I still felt I didn’t have the complete picture. But as I’ve answered more of my own questions through my undergrad and grad work, [I have] simultaneously both honed my own musical abilities and watched my brother’s music take off. His band, Fighting For Ithaca, is now signed to Carly Rae Jepsen’s home label, 604 Records. I admit that my inclinations have been pulling consistently towards the idea of making a serious go at being a musician.
MD: How did this tension finally lead you to this project? What caused this sudden realization?
TB: To be honest, I’m really not sure. I’ve been doing a capella for a while; when I worked in Vancouver at the TRIUMF research facility I [did a lot of arrangements for] this group called Acapocalypse and it made me realize that this was something I was good at. At the same time I’ve recently become really interested in online video as a medium, because it’s really one of the most accessible ways for a DIY kind of person to get their material out there; you don’t have to know the right people or get a distribution deal, you just need to make something awesome enough that the first few people to see it go, “oh man, this is great!” and introduce it to a few more people. True virality feeds off great content, and nothing else. Anyways, I’d been thinking of starting an a capella channel and wanted something to distinguish myself from the leagues of other people doing that sort of stuff, and then I remembered how crazy the internet is about science, even things that are horribly campy like Alpinekat’s “LHC Rap,” and I realized that this would be something that I would love, and other people would love, and that only I could do. And then I had to do it.
MD: You mentioned that “A Capella Science” is inspired by “Weird Al, Bill Nye, Mike Tompkins, and Vi Hart.” How did they help you with that “a-ha” moment?
TB: I don’t know if any of the above actually helped give me the idea, but as soon as I had it they gave me something to compare myself to, to draw ideas from, and to motivate myself by remembering how much I love all of their work, and that other people might actually like it too. I have a lot of ideas that seem great to me and that no one else thinks are that great; the success of these people made me realize that this was not one of those.
MD: You were featured on a Scientific American blog. How did they discover you?
TB: I really don’t know. The blog post itself says that she found me on Reddit, but to be honest the video didn’t do that well there so I’m surprised she found it. Another lady from the Agence France-Presse contacted me for an offbeat news story about the same time, so maybe one of them got it from the other, or maybe they both just happened to see it. By that time I was already getting emails from people in physics labs all over the world saying they’d seen it and loved it and shown it to their research groups. I guess someone knew someone who knew someone; who knows? The mystery of virality.
MD: Was “Rolling in the Higgs” your first attempt at making a Youtube video? How long did it take to make this cover?
TB: My first stab at YouTube was a cover band collaboration with Tom Zalatnai, a friend of mine, under the moniker “Cabin 9” (youtube.com/cabin9music). That allowed me to stretch my wings and sort of figure out the genre, as well as how to use video editing software. As for this project, I actually wrote another science-based parody first – which is now in the works – but I felt the song choice for that one was too complicated for a first try. I started writing the lyrics to this one while watching the live stream from Geneva of the announcement that they’d found the Higgs. From there it took a while to refine, and then record, shoot, and edit together. It took so long that by the time I was finished, the Higgs was old news and I was afraid I’d missed the window for people to care about it. As it is I think I gave news writers a good excuse to re-energize a popular topic, which might be why so many people seem to be picking up the story.
MD: Is this an individual project or do you have other people helping with the lyrics, music, filming, et cetera?
TD: Right now it’s just me. As “A Capella Science” puts out more material I have a feeling I’m going to have to start bringing in people from other fields, because to be honest I can write about one more set of lyrics before I’ve exhausted all the interesting topics that I’m an expert in. Also, this whole video was shot with a Macbook webcam, but I’ve had a few people offer to help me with camera work for future videos. That might be nice.
MD: What is the next song you plan on doing?
TB: Ooh, spoilers. You want a hint? Watch right to the end of the “Rolling in the Higgs” video.
MD: Do you consider yourself a singer or a scientist?
TB: I don’t really know what I am. I’m a person with varied interests, like most people, and I’ve found a way to bring some of those interests together. I think it’ll be great if I can get people more interested in science, or if I can get scientists more interested in indulging their creative side. I think people often try too hard to be just one thing – a musician, a doctor, an artist, a physicist – at the expense of the other facets of their personality. Maybe that’s why people love this kind of mash-up between worlds, the scientific and the musical. I know that’s how I feel about the physics professors’ Redshift Blues Band. It’s awesome because you didn’t expect it, but why not? People aren’t machines built for a single task.
MD: Is this project more for personal enjoyment or do you foresee turning this into an educational entertainment program of some sort?
TB: It’s definitely becoming a program, but I’m going to keep doing it because I enjoy it. If it stops becoming fun or I run out of ideas, I’ll move onto something else; maybe a more serious musical project. But I don’t see that happening in the near future. So far I’m loving it. The only other question is: What happens when I have to spend all my time writing my Master’s thesis?
MD: Any words of advice to those studying science at McGill but also experiencing possible tension between their creative and academic sides?
TB: Take some time to explore all your skills. Life isn’t some mad rush to find the one thing you’ll be stuck doing the rest of your life.
If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the “Rolling in the Higgs” video here.