Playing (O)possums

Group sings for science; will perform in honor of Darwin

by BRADLEY J. FIKES – Staff Writer, North County Times

Sunday, January 22, 2006

SOLANA BEACH —- It’s a Sunday afternoon, and members of the science-themed band Dr. Baird and The Opossums of Truth are scratching their heads. They’re puzzled over the unusual style of a new song written by the group’s leader, Dr. Stephen Baird.

“What the … !” says Baird’s son, Daniel, a software engineer.

“That’s classic Steve Baird, six chords and oddball times that change …,” says another Opossums member, Ron Jackson.

Assembled at Baird’s Solana Beach home, the Opossums were practicing for their next performance. The event: the Feb. 12 birthday of Charles Darwin, originator of the theory of evolution through natural selection. This will be their fifth annual performance.

But at the moment, the evolution of musical chords, not life, is the talk of Baird’s puzzled colleagues. Baird patiently explains the concept, and the quartet sets to work.

The playful melody emerges:

“Jum-ping genes, jum-ping genes … Barbara McClintock’s jum-ping genes …”

So goes the ode to McClintock, the late Nobel Prize-winning geneticist who discovered that genes could hop around on chromosomes. These jumping genes, technically called “transposons,” help explain how bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics, the immune response to infection, and how some cancers spread by viruses.

The influence of Darwin

For the first time, the Opossums will be giving two Darwin’s birthday performances. The first will have more of a scientific theme, the second more of a religious and mystical focus. They will play about 20 songs, with 10 of the songs the same at each performance.

The first concert, on Feb. 11, will be held at the UCSD School of Medicine at 7:30 p.m. The second will be held on Darwin’s actual birthday, Feb. 12, at the Unitarian Universalist auditorium in Hillcrest. More details are available at The group’s home page is at

While the Opossums sing about many aspects of science and humanity, evolutionary themes occupy center stage.

There’s a tribute to Stanley Miller, the famous UC San Diego chemistry professor emeritus. More than 50 years ago, Miller and Harold Urey, both then at the University of Chicago, produced amino acids, the building blocks of life, by zapping a flask of methane, water vapor and ammonia with electricity.

The experiment proved that more complex organic molecules can be produced from simpler molecules without a plan. That evidence of complexity without design is an essential part of scientific theories of life’s origins, and of the evolution of life once it arose.

In more recent times, the evolutionary concept of planless, self-organizing complexity has been turned into technology for discovering new drugs. Darwinian ideas have even crossed over into computer science, such as the production of software through “genetic algorithms” modeled after the Darwinian concept of natural selection.

Lyrics first

Baird, a UCSD Medical Center professor of pathology and chief of staff at the Veterans Administration Medical Center, composes some of the music himself. The lyrics come first, then Baird speaks the words to find a melody.

“I think that the English language has a natural rhythm to it,” Baird said. “So I try and write melodies that fit the rhythm of the words. From the rhythm of the lyrics, a melody just suggests itself, then I diddle with it.

“Ron is my music teacher. I show it to him, and he every now and then says, ‘You ought to do this, you better make this chord change here or something,’ ” Baird said. “People kid me about my chord changes.”

Many tunes are taken from gospel and country/bluegrass songs. Baird often makes a play on words in writing lyrics to those borrowed tunes. For example, Hank Williams’ “I Saw The Light,” a song about religious conversion, in Baird’s hands became “Bang! There Was Light!”, a song about the big bang that created the universe.

Baird says he grew up with gospel music as a youth before his “conversion to rationalism,” as he puts it. Baird retained his admiration for the happy nature of gospel music, and decided to meld its musical style with scientific messages.

“It’s not so much our purpose to trash religion as to have fun with music about science,” Baird said.

But supernatural beliefs such as intelligent design creationism that claim to be science are fair game for the Opossums. One of the new songs for this year is about intelligent design —- or more precisely, the unintelligent design of much of life.

Sense of awe

Baird concedes that people can live perfectly happy and productive lives without knowing about evolution or accepting it. Baird’s message to them: Even those who don’t care about the subject will benefit from the scientific advances that evolution fuels.

“The enterprise of science and the understanding of evolution have led to understanding antibiotic resistance, have led to understanding how cancer cells become resistant to radiation and chemotherapy, have led to the germ theory of disease,” Baird said. “So it’s important that people, if they don’t understand evolution, at least don’t get in the way of the people who do.”

Baird and the Opossums say science doesn’t take away their sense of awe of the universe, but rather heightens it. To Baird, the production of human consciousness from unconscious matter by natural laws is more stupendous than any tale of science fiction —- because it’s scientific fact.

“Somewhere at some point … the universe evolved a creature that could actually contemplate how it got there. That is an absolutely awe-inspiring idea,” Baird said.

“And if you want a mystical statement, how’s this: When human beings evolved, and became intelligent, and started thinking, that’s when the universe became aware of itself.”