String theory + a capella = A Montrealer's formula for online fame
Tim Blais offers bizarre, brilliant renditions of pop songs that make learning science easy (or easier)
This story is part of CBC Homerun's series on Montrealers who have made it big on YouTube.
When Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield covered Space Oddity from space, he may have created a new genre of music: science rock.
But if Hadfield was the pioneer, Montreal physicist Tim Blais may be the one to take sci-rock mainstream.
The Hudson-born science musician was completing his master of physics at McGill University back in 2012 and started singing a cappella on the side when he got bored with book learning.
A Capella Science ... may be the single most comprehensively nerdy endeavour ever conceived.- Scientific American
Blais, whose mother ran a church choir, ended up setting his favourite pop songs to his favourite physics theories. His debut — a song about the Higgs boson particle set to Adele's Rolling in the Deep — went viral.
Its opening lines? " There's a collider under Geneva / Reaching new energies that we've never achieved before / Finally we can see with this machine / A brand new data peak at 125 GeV ..."
Nerdiest project ever?
The success of Rolling in the Higgs prompted Blais to start A Capella Science, which the venerable publication Scientific American suggested "may be the single most comprehensively nerdy endeavour ever conceived."
As part of the project, Blais uses pop songs to bring the wonders of science to a broader audience.
For instance, Blais took the melody of Bruno Mars' Uptown Funk and created Pluto Mars: Outbound Probe — an ode to the spacecraft that took pictures of Pluto last year.
Whereas Mars opens with "This hit, that ice cold / Michelle Pfeiffer, that white gold," Blais offers instead "Next stop, that ice cold / No cell of life on that light globe."
For an explanation of string theory, there's Bohemian Gravity, a rendition of Queen's classic hit Bohemian Rhapsody that's racked up close to three million views on YouTube.
"Infinities will make you cry / Unless you can renormalize your model / Of baryons, fermions / And all other states of matter."
One song at a time, Blais is defying physicist stereotypes. (Though, to be fair, Queen guitarist Brian May has a PhD in astrophysics.)
Blais said his original plan was only to make music for a year. But science professors and other fans from all over the world kept messaging him for more videos.
His decision's to combine his love for music and physics is now finally starting to pay off.
"By hook or by crook, I am paying the rent with this," Blais told CBC's Homerun.
He says he's supported by ad revenues, mp3 and poster sales, as well as fan support through the website Patreon.
"So far, this mutual trust in each other seems to work out," said Blais.
His fan base was initially made up of physicists who could understand the complex lyrics of his songs, but Blais said families have told him they listen to his work, too.