Black Death vs. Yellow Fever

The fifth and final “Brahe’s Battles” video is complete! The 9th graders from SUMMIT San Jose tried a new take on “science history rap battles.” They personify two deadly epidemics, battling over which disease was more devastating, frightening, and consequential for human history.

In this corner: Yersinia pestis a.k.a. The Bubonic Plague a.k.a. The Black Death, a.k.a. that bacteria that wiped out an estimated 100 million 14th century Europeans.

Black death, personified by LJ The discovery of antibiotics has reduced the human impact of Yersinia pestis, a bacterium that can be transmitted in the guts of fleas (which, in turn, live on rodents). Although there are still outbreaks of plague in modern times, the disease can be cured if treated immediately with antibiotics. Terrifyingly, antibiotic-resistant strains of Yersinia pestis have been isolated in various parts of the world.

In this corner: from the genus Flavivirus, Yellow Fever a.k.a. Yellow Jack a.k.a. the RNA virus responsible for devastating pandemics in 19th century North America


The Yellow Fever Virus, spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, most likely evolved in Africa and was brought to the Caribbean via the slave trade. The horrifying disease spread through New Orleans, Philadelphia, and New York in the late 1700s and 1800s. To this day there is no cure for the disease, which can cause extreme bleeding, jaundice, and even hallucinations in the 15% of people who enter the “toxic phase.” Within that group there is up to 50% mortality. Luckily there is a safe and effective vaccine for Yellow Fever.

The students chose to parody the hit song “Black and Yellow” by Wiz Khalifa.

Extra Resources:

New science history battle rap! Tycho Brahe vs. Johannes Kepler

It’s the “sickest mustache in the 16th century” (Tycho Brahe) battling his assistant (Johannes Kepler) in a brand new astronomical rap dual, written and performed by 8th graders at San Jose Community Day.

According to legend, Tycho got his nose cut off in a dual over who was the better mathematician. He had a pet elk. He posted up in a big old palace called Uraniborg and got lots of accurate data with his big fancy instruments.

Uraniborg! Denmark.

Uraniborg! Denmark.

Meanwhile, Johannes Kepler had an amazing mathematical mind and came up with several far out theories involving harmonic spheres and muscial notes as he tried to find God’s order in the movement of the planets. Kepler was eventually hired by Brahe and went to Uraniborg to help Brahe interpret his data.  Brahe was attached to his “Tychonic model” of the solar system (which had other planets orbiting the Sun while the sun orbited Earth), while Kepler was convinced of the Copernican model (Earth one of several planets orbiting the Sun).

tychonic modelCopernican model

Brahe was  stingy with his data, since he wanted Kepler to support his own theory. It wasn’t until Brahe died (under mysterious and controversial circumstances… mercury poisoning from his nose? overindulgence? MURDER!?) that Kepler was able to make some progress. With unfettered access to Brahe’s data, Kepler was able to come up with three elegant rules for planetary motion, known as Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion.

* * *

Last year, the 8th graders from San Jose Community Day (and their teacher Mr. Spielberg) decided to immortalize this epic battle in rap music video form. This is the only song out of the “Brahe’s Battles” series that is not a parody – an all original track on top of an original Chase Moore beat. Hope you enjoy it. Watch it on YouTube or embedded at the top of the post.

For more information on this tale of scientific intrigue:

  • Cosmos. Carl Sagan. Episode 3: “Harmony of the Worlds”. This retells the whole story of Brahe and Kepler. (Vimeo link)
  • Two more thorough versions of Kepler’s Three Laws on Planetary Motion (short version, long version)
  • Lyrics to the Brahe vs. Kepler rap battle video (which you can explain/annotated) on Rap Genius.
A sneak peak of the Brahe vs. Kepler shoot.


Continental Drift!

A new week of teaching and a new battle rap premier! This week it’s Alfred Wegener vs. “The Fixists.” Wegener was a German meteorologist who proposed the theory of continental drift in the early 20th century. He had a lot of solid evidence backing him up. However, his best guesses as to the mechanism of drift were inadequate. Yet his critic’s attacks of the day went beyond the scientific into the personal, as can be seen in the rap.

6th grader from San Jose as Wegener

Well, it turns out that Wegener’s overall theory was correct, though this wasn’t shown until decades later. Harry Hess was in the Navy during World War II where he picked up some sonar skills. This technology allowed him to map much of the ocean floor and lead him to propose the theory of seafloor spreading – the crucial mechanism behind Wegener’s theory of continental drift.

6th grader from San Jose as Harry Hess
This particular science history rap battle was made at Lee Mathson Middle School in the Alum Rock School District in San Jose, California. Unlike some of the other videos where we mainly used after school enrichment time, we were able to incorporate this project into traditional science class time. This allowed us to go more in-depth into this subject that most 6th grade classes typically do, and to incorporate tons of creative energy into the pursuit of scientific understanding. We shot the video on a green screen in the cafeteria.

Watch it here! (And of course, you can always go back and check out the Fossil Rock Anthem if you want some more continental drift action).

Oh yeah – and we used a sample of Bill Nye’s voice from the “Continental Drift” section of this discovery video page.

Dwarf Planet, Wassup? (Pluto Rap)

Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 11.22.29 PM

I hope everybody enjoyed the second in the science history rap battle series. Watch the Pluto rap here!

Here is a version of the Pluto story in non-rap form in case you’d like to hear it explained in a slightly different manner.

And here are four quick an easy ways to engage as a student, teacher, or science lover.

1. Explain/annotate the lyrics via Rap Genius here.

2. Read more about the history of Pluto in Mike Brown’s book, How I Killed Pluto and why it had it coming.

3. Watch Neil Degrasse Tyson’s “The Pluto Files” special on NOVA.

4. Check out the LEGO VERSION of the New Horizons spacecraft!

Comment below or in the YouTube comments if you have any feedback or questions. Also make sure to subscribe to the youtube channel to stay updated on future battles!

Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 11.19.12 PM

Making the (Student-Driven Science History Rap Battle) Video

Many teachers have now seen the “Rosalind Franklin vs. Watson and Crick” video. Many want to do something similar. Over the months and years ahead I hope to hone all this wild west education experimentation into a more useful set of instructions. For now, I’ll give you the bare bones and hope you’re fired up enough to experiment yourself! (see some qualifiers at the end of the post).

All of the following ten steps were accomplished in weekly or twice-weekly sessions from February to May 2013.

1.) Intro: I would start with some cool examples of what other kids have done. I’d usually perform and get them generally hyped about this opportunity to bring their favorite music into the classroom. Just about every student I worked with had heard of Epic Rap Battles, and it was easy to sell them on the “make your own battle” proposition. I always emphasize the nature of science early, asking students to define science, and alerting them to the fact that we would be fleshing out this definition out by learning about how scientists think/work/debate.

2.) Roles: I alerted them to the diverse skills that would be needed to pull this off. There would be something for everybody (introverts and extroverts alike), and a chance to explore or show-off talents not always rewarded in school. Roles included: content experts, lyric writers, audio performers, video performers, costume designers, storyboarders, behind-the-scenes documentarians, and more. I typically did not assign roles, and rather let everybody do a little bit of everything, with certain individuals showing initiative and stepping into roles in a bigger way.

The KIPP Bridge Brainstorm on content and music.

The KIPP Bridge Brainstorm on content and music.

3.) Brainstorming: I worked with the students and teachers to create two huge lists: 1.) science topics & 2.) artist/song choices. We did this early on, and did not pick our topic/song combo for a few weeks. This allowed students to continue to brainstorm and come up with creative combinations of the two (i.e. using “Clique” for a song about Watson & Crick).

4.) Rhyming: We played a few rhyming games and I asked students to articulate how they came up with rhymes. We discussed creative rhymes (don’t let them tell you nothing rhymes with orange –> see eminem video below) and asked them to collect examples of creative rhymes they would hear on the radio.

5.) Science & History Content: We would usually practice rhyming and discuss song structure for a few weeks, which allowed me time to go and read up on whatever topic we had chosen. For example, I read How I Killed Pluto by Mike Brown and watched a bunch of Nova episodes so that I could feel confident in teaching them the science behind the Pluto controversy.

One of many sessions where we went over classifying Pluto.

One of many sessions where we went over classifying Pluto.

I taught the science and history in an integrated fashion, but I did it a bit didactically, since we were short on time. In education utopia I could have assigned them homework to research the science and history themselves. I did, however, frequently (each week) ask them to explain the content back to me.

Simple rhyming couplet from the continental drift battle.

Simple rhyming couplet from the continental drift battle.

6.) Lyrics & Song Structure: We  moved on from putting rhyming words together to putting rhyming sentences together. While studying storytelling in songs, we tried to synthesize all the science history we had learned into one cohesive story. Once we had our story, we could begin translating essential points into rhymes. Sometimes students preferred to come up with completely original lyrics, though often we would use the structure from other songs and change the words.

7. Audio recording. Once we had our lyrics down, we recorded a demo (rough version) and let students practice before they auditioned. Meanwhile, I would usually have the lyrics fact-checked by a scientist in the field (for example, I got Pluto Killer Mike Brown to take a look at our Pluto lyrics and give them the OK – Thanks!). There would usually be a couple kids who were really confident in their lyrical ability, and they were the ones who recorded the audio (I would bring a microphone, stand, and my laptop to class to record them).

Our demo was completed, giving potential lyricists a chance to practice lyrics over spring break.

Our demo was completed, giving potential lyricists a chance to practice lyrics over spring break.

8. Story-boarding & Costume Design: While I was busy recording audio, I’d have the other students plan out their visions for the video. They could focus on story-boarding scenes, thinking of costumes, or drawing visuals. For those who were obsessed with lyrics and not with drawing, I would let them work on their own personal raps or songs. These were very free-flowing sessions. We would then come back as a class to agree on a basic storyboard and costumes.

9. Video Recording: Once we had audio recorded we would have acting auditions for who wanted to be in the video. The same kids who were vocalists would get first dibs on playing the same characters in the video. But  students were so frequently absent, on detention, or camera shy, that we had to be flexible with casting. Via my grant and Kickstarter funds, I was able to rent costumes that students couldn’t acquire themselves, and hire videographers to bring in green screens and lighting so we could shoot in empty classrooms or libraries.

A sneak peak of the Brahe vs. Kepler shoot.

A sneak peak of the Brahe vs. Kepler shoot.

10. Editing: Because the previous steps took so much time, I was not able to have students do the audio recording/mixing or video recording/editing (which would have been awesome). What’s more, I also wanted to make sure the final products were high quality enough that other classes would enjoy watching them. My goal is that, now that the videos are made, students around the world will be able to flip our work into creative remixes/videos/performances and get a chance to practice these skills on their own (remix materials coming soon). For students who really wanted to get experience shooting and editing during this project, I encouraged them do behind-the-scenes documentation.

That’s the bare bones for now. Happy to address any questions you have in the comments.


Qualifier #1: My vision is that students and teachers will be able to remix these materials in less labor-intensive way than what is described above, using the lyrics, audio, or video to engage creatively (remixes) or critically (class discussions). That being said, no reason not to go big and do it all from scratch.

Qualifier #2:  I lead these video-making projects in five different schools. Different grades. Different school structures (charter, public, alternative). Different meeting times (lunch, after school, during scheduled science class). Different opt-in models (some mandatory for the whole class, some by application). I had to dodge and weave and improvise at every turn to make it work. But the basic structure, described above, was the same across them all.

Rosalind Franklin vs. Watson & Crick – Science History Rap Battle

Thanks for watching the video! An absolute high in my short career integrating science, music, and video.

More is coming soon on the story of the Rosalind Franklin video. For now, here are some opportunities to go deeper with the content.


Rap Genius Annotations: The lyrics to “Rosalind Franklin vs. Watson & Crick” can be seen here. Thanks to rapgenius, people can annotate these lyrics,  providing explanations and links for each line. Search for the deeper meaning to the “She needs to change her hair” line, or the rap reference of the “I’m a scientist… man” line.

Books: I’d recommend starting with The Double Helix by James Watson for his side of the story. Check out Rosalind Franklin and DNA by Anne Sayre for a pro-Rosalind rebuttal. And look at the Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox for an attempt to split the difference.

Websites: I also recommend this Berkeley website called Understanding Science that uses this history as a case study in the nature of science. Their version of the story begins here.

Lastly, if you are a student or a teacher and can figure out a creative way to incorporate this into your class, I want to hear about it! Post a comment here and let me know what you have in mind.

Screen Shot 2013-08-05 at 11.27.57 AM

Remember to subscribe to the the YouTube channel if you are not already, and check out the trailer below.