Sing a Song of Science

STANFORD (May/June 2001)

Guitar in hand, the self-styled gospel singer steps up to the mike. Glancing nervously a the small audience, he begins strumming, then takes a deep breath and belts out a soulful song – about gonorrhea.

“You’ve injected your sperms into places with germs,” the middle aged man wails to the tune of That’s Amore.

The audience cheers him through a string of ballads about equally improbable topics – evolution, astronomy, statistics, televangelism. The finale is a bawdy, crowd-pleaser called Safe Sex Waltz. In his rich, slightly nasal voice, the singer muses:

I’d rather eat chocolate than have sex with you.
It’s simpler and safer and tastier too.
It raises endorphins like sex does, I’m told,
And you can still chew when you’re 90 years old.

If it sounds like sick humor, it is. Literally.

Stephen Baird, a physician and professor of pathology at UC-San Diego, began his musical career in the classroom, rewriting lyrics to well-known songs to help students remember disease-related concepts. The unusual approach has won him several teaching awards. “He’s really good at getting us to enjoy lectures,” says first-year medical student Erin Barcase.

More recently, the singing doctor has expanded his range of subjects. The result is a new musical genre – he calls it “scientific gospel” – and a satirical CD titled Hallelujah! Evolution!

Baird’s big break came in 1998 when he was asked to demonstrate his craft during a dinner party at the home of Francis crick, the Nobel Prize-winning DNA researcher. Another guest happened to own a small record label. “[Baird] started singing a cappella at the dinner table,” recalls Nick Binkley, head of PSB Records, “and it was an instant hit.” Binkley convinced Baird to make a recording.

The CD sells online and is a favorite of college radio stations. Songs like Prayer or Pencillin and There’s a Big Black Hole in Heaven promote a secular view of the world and lightly poke fun at religious fundamentalism. Baird, raised in Bible Belt Oklahoma, says he experienced a “conversion to rationalism” during his 12 years at Stanford.

But he doesn’t take his musical sideline too seriously. “I don’t know how important any of this is; it’s just been fun for me,” says Baird, who lives in Solana Beach with his wife, genealogist Carol Baird. Outside the lecture hall, he performs mainly at research conferences and medical faculty retirement parties, plus the occasional small club or campus pub. “My audience is basically limited to scientists and people like that, who think what I do is funny.”

Steven Raphael, “00