(From the archives. Originally written in October 2011.)

“There are four types of toilets.”

“Oh, really?”

“First, there’s the type you know from granny’s house, with the cistern up here.”

He gestured at an imaginary cistern floating seven feet up in the air in the main area of the new house.

One of the types of toilets

“Then people wanted the cistern lower, but with that they became smaller. They’d still work for a pee, but not always for a poo.”

I was tired. Exhausted, even, after a full day of moving house. All I wanted was to take a nap, but first I had to…


I saw two tweets last week that I can’t stop thinking about. First, this one that got everyone on Twitter talking about the way they process thoughts.

I think I’m the second type. I *can* think in sentences, if I try, but it’s always a conscious effort. I have to imagine myself having a conversation, or I do something I call “writing in my head”, which is a very deliberate search for the words for something. I now understand that some people don’t have to make that effort at all, but that sentences pop up in their head all…


Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Ideas for new articles or blog posts come when you least expect it. On the bus. At work. Right before you fall asleep.

I used to write these sudden ideas down on Post-it notes, or in whichever notebook was close at hand, but I would often lose track of them. Months later I’d find a hastily scribbled note that made very little sense anymore. They would things like “book thing for blog” or “kids science idea (write about)”. What does it mean? When did I write it? It was useless now, and the notes ended up in the bin.

A custom form to save my thoughts

A…


Musicians influence science and scientists in many different ways!

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk at the Francis Crick Institute in London. This is one of the world’s top research institutes, but I was there to talk about why science needs musicians, at a half-day music symposium.

This is a short summary of my talk, listing some of the ways that musicians are influencing science.

Scientists making music

In 2015 I ran a survey in which over 700 people shared the level at which they were involved in either music or science. A large number of them were involved in both…


Sometimes music helps you study. Other times it’s a major annoyance. What’s going on, and why are all the scientific studies so different?

Yesterday I described some studies that show a slight advantage, in some situations, of listening to music while you study. But what if you can’t study with music on at all? What if you need absolute silence to concentrate?

What kind of studying are you doing?

Depending on what kind of studying you’re doing, music may make the task easier or harder. If you need to comprehend what you’re memorizing, it might help to listen to music about what you’re learning. …


Do you listen to music while you study? Some people swear by it, others can’t stand it. What does science say?

Over the years, several research groups have studied how music affects learning or whether music can help you concentrate. These studies are all different: they look at different types of music, different types of studying, different test subjects, and they take different measurements.

In this post, I’ll round up some of the ones that show a positive or neutral effect of music on studying. In the next post, they’ll be more negative or neutral. …


Some musicians – and many scientists – don’t get paid to entertain you. Here’s why.

Irish Folk Session, The Old Dubliner Hamburg. By Hinnerk R (Hinnerk Rümenapf) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

I’ve played in orchestras for about twenty years, have performed alongside professional musicians, and for sold out crowds. If you look closely you can see me playing violin in a BBC documentary. As part of larger music ensembles I’ve played for audiences that included Lily Allen, Kate Winslet, and members of the Barenaked Ladies. Tickets to these performances often cost between £10-£25, but I’ve not been paid for any of these gigs.

Surprised? Don’t be. I’m not a professional musician. I’m a (former) scientist and…


Photo of Brian May by Maria Sealey from Pexels

Musicians make us dance, sway, sing along, and tap our feet. But did you know some of them also spend a lot of time studying science? Below are eleven scientific discoveries made by professional musicians, in fields ranging from astrophysics to neuroscience.

1. The planet Uranus

Discovered by William Herschel (composer)

William Herschel was the composer and organist at the Octagon Chapel in Bath, England, but in his spare time he made telescopes. …


There’s more to genres than can be captured by an algorithm.

Music genres are hard to define. They have something to do with sorting music by rhythm, melody, tempo, tonality, or instrumentation, but it’s more than that. Genres are also based on historic and social concepts. When was the music written? Which country is it from? In what setting is it usually performed and how does the audience interact with it? Is this music to quietly listen to from the plush seats of a concert hall, or is this music to dance to at a crowded all-night rave in an abandoned warehouse?

There are conventions and norms associated with certain types…


The science behind the spookiest soundtracks

Image via Max Pixel

A scary movie would be far less scary without its soundtrack. Close your ears during the most tense scenes, and they become almost boring. Take this recut of the trailer for The Shining as a happy family movie (“Shining”). It’s funny partly because of the voice-over, but mainly because of the happy Peter Gabriel music at the end. It works the other way around as well, as demonstrated by a fan-made trailer of Frozen as a horror film.

Music makes scary movies scary — but what makes scary music scary?

Nonlinear noise

Daniel Blumstein is professor…

Eva Amsen 🔬🎶

Writer, science communicator, musician. Find more of my writing at Forbes.com, Undark, Nature, Nautilus, The Scientist, Hakai and other places.

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