The Amoeba People are redefining Earth and space science education, one song at a time.
With humorous, catchy, and off-beat numbers about geophysics that mix G-rated pop, rock, folk, jazz, hip-hop, and other genres, the band, based in Lakewood, Calif., recently released its fourth album and saw its top music video, “Continental Drift,” surpass a half million views on YouTube.
Guitarist Ray Hedgpeth, an elementary school teacher who also plays the banjo, theremin, and other instruments, wrote that song in 2010 while trying to interest his students in the story of Alfred Wegener and plate tectonics. The tune, which includes a boiled down historical take about Wegener, exclaims, “Yee haw! Alfred Wegener! / You are a brilliant, brilliant man! / Continental Drift! Alfred Wegener’s theory!”
“The kids went crazy for it, and I began to write more,” Hedgpeth told Eos. The song led to Hedgpeth forming the Amoeba People that year with drummer Dustin Jordan and bass and keyboard player Ryan Mosley.
Not your average band, the Amoeba People combines studiously researched songs with a wacky mythology that traces them to the planet Crouton, a fictional world 17 light years from Earth whose leaders supposedly sent them here as musical ambassadors charged with gathering scientific data and sending it back home in musical form.
When performing live or on video, the band members dance like dorks and dress in short-sleeve white shirts, narrow ties, and horn-rimmed glasses to fit in with the television transmissions of traditionally clad space science engineers Crouton detected from Earth circa 1962.
The name of the band originates from a colleague of Hedgpeth who mentioned that kids learning to draw at first mostly make “those amoeba people”: blobs with arms, legs, and a face. Hedgpeth said that when he saw bandmate Jordan drawing “little green amoeba guys,” the band thought “it would be cool if that’s what the band was on their home planet but they could shape-shift when they came to Earth and ‘take on’ a human form.”
Music as an Educational Tool
The Amoeba People, who refer to themselves as Meebs, “are moving science education out of the textbook,” making science more accessible, and treating scientific knowledge like an art medium, according to Benjamin Dickow, president and executive director of the Columbia Memorial Space Center, in Downey, Calif., NASA’s memorial to the shuttle Columbia. He said the group, which serves as the museum’s official house band, has “a punky-surf-rockabilly foundation.”
“The Ballad of Carl Sagan” ranks as Dickow’s favorite song; its refrain about the astronomer goes, “Straight outta Brooklyn like a comet to the stars / Carl’s mind wandered from this pale blue dot of ours.”
The Meebs plan to release soon a music video of the song “involving as many Carl Sagan impersonators as we can muster,” Hedgpeth said.
“A Great Jumping-Off Point”
For Jen Parks, an instructor in the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, the Amoeba People “contribute a novel way to introduce scientific content to undergraduate classes.”
Parks uses their songs during her lectures as “a great jumping-off point” to more advanced content and to encourage fun and creativity in the classroom. Parks said that when she first heard their music in 2013, “I couldn’t believe someone had written lyrics that were scientifically correct and had put [them] together with such quirky tunes that reminded me of some ska bands I used to listen to when I was younger,” Parks said.
Her favorite song, “The Geologists Are Coming,” not only has a campy accompanying video of nerd geologists running down hills and hammering at rocks but also includes delightfully silly lyrics such as “The geologists are coming! / Yes, they’re trudging down the hill. / When they say that mountain’s young / They’re talking ten to twenty mil.”
Parks related that during a recent field trip with her second-year mineralogy class, students in separate minivans sang that song over walkie-talkies while driving between field stops.
Hedgpeth traced the song’s title to a 2009 Wired magazine article that said staffers at a San Francisco brewpub couldn’t take vacation during American Geophysical Union meetings “because the geologists are coming.”
Researching and Writing
As the group’s principle songwriter, Hedgpeth said he tries to write songs specifically for primary school students in grades 4–6 that might also hit “the sweet spot” of appealing to college students and others. “Every time I would come up against something in the [Earth science] textbook, it resulted in a new Amoeba People song,” he said, adding that he delves deeply into the material and then fact checks it with geologists and other experts.
“I really, really research the stuff. I really dig deep, and the hard part is you know you are going to leave stuff out” of songs, he said.
Band member Mosley, who works as an electrician, said that he and Jordan have been excited about the ideas Hedgpeth comes up with for music with a scientific slant. “It’s kind of a niche that we’re trying to fill that we don’t feel like anyone else is doing,” he said.
“Literally, you have a whole world to draw off of,” added Jordan, a delivery driver and former heavy metal drummer for a different band who does artwork for the group’s album covers. “I’m just really blown away that you guys in the geology community even like what we’re doing,” he said.
“A Head-Hummer Tune”
Paleontologist Scott Brande counts himself among those fans. Brande, an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, discovered the band’s “Continental Drift” music video a few years ago while searching for interesting material for an introductory geology course he teaches.
“It’s a head-hummer tune. You can’t get it out of your head. [The students] loved it,” Brande said. But more importantly, to him, the video serves as an effective learning tool that does more than burn up a few minutes of class time.
The Amoeba People “had done their homework,” Brande said, noting that the educational content in their music video “corresponded to and overlapped with” a lot of the material he was talking about in class.
Musicologist Barret Hansen, better known as Dr. Demento, also sings the praises of the Meebs, who draw influences from a variety of musicians, including the Beatles, Devo, and the Kingston Trio.
Dr. Demento, who provided then teenager “Weird Al” Yankovic with his first media exposure, said the band can generally be compared with music greats like humorist Tom Lehrer or with musicians who make music “that’s specifically for kids to use their brains with.”
“It’s not just mindless repetition of cartoon songs, and it’s not based on stuff that they’ve seen on television. [The Amoeba People] have created their own little world,” he said.
The band’s first song featured on a Dr. Demento show, “Cosmology, Your Futon and You,” features lyrics including “And you’re sitting on your futon / And your thoughts turn to cosmology.” Hedgpeth said the Meebs plan to release a music video of that song later this summer while the band also works on its next album and explores a possible science television show.
“Dear Pluto,” a tribute to the downgraded planet, ranks as another of the doctor’s favorites by the band. The lyrics include “And I’d like to reassure you / That no matter how you’re categorized / You’re still our favorite object in the night sky.”
“That’s certainly one of their talents, creating amusing lyrics with original and articulate word play. Weird Al does that too,” Dr. Demento said. “That’s real important.”
The other important thing, Hedgpeth said, is telling “momentous stories in Earth science [that] nobody knows about.”
“There are many, many stories and many concepts that are easy to grasp and fun” but that don’t get a lot of attention, he said, “and so that’s the area we want to fill.”
—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer