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Musical video, 'The Nano Song,' a megahit on YouTube

Cal contest entry explains nanotechnology to a gaggle of dancing puppets

| 06 March 2009

How would you explain "nanotechnology" to a science novice? A group of UC Berkeley students and alums answered this call with a pint-sized video — part "Sound of Music," part Muppets, part Dan the Science Man — whose online reception has been anything but small.

"The Nano Song" features music and lyrics by the multi-talented Ryan Miyakawa, a 27-year-old pianist-composer and engineering grad student. UC Berkeley junior Glory Liu — a classics and political economy major with three years of classical music training — does the vocals, cheerfully explaining nanotechnology to a band of puppets: "A million nanometers that are lined up in a row/Are just about as long as a single flake of snow…." The piece went online Feb. 22, when the group submitted it to an American Chemical Society (ACS) contest, for Nano 101 videos no more than three minutes long.

Fame wasted no time. By early March, "The Nano Song" had spread virally, with mentions by PhysOrg.com, Scientific American, WIRED, and boingboing. When YouTube featured the video on its home page, it quickly racked up close to 300,000 hits (as of the first week of March), along with a mountain of comments from viewers, like "'Nano Song' is rocking the globe!"

"I turned comments off after the first 200," says Miyakawa.

 Nano Song puppet
"Nano Song" puppet.

Nanotechnology is a hot topic in science and engineering, but experts in the field have trouble explaining it to the uninitiated, he notes. On the nano-contest website — where ACS posts submissions and viewers vote for their favorites — he found many "boring" explanations of nano-scale particles at "10 to the minus nine." Instead, he says, "I wanted to do something fun that would be acceptable to the public."

To Miyakawa, a silly yet edifying song seemed to be in order. He spent a day composing a tune in 4/4/ time — using music software to lay down a big orchestral sound — and writing lyrics with K-to-adult appeal, with a refrain that goes: "Nano, nana, nano/ What a wonderful surprise/That ordinary is extraordinary/When you make it nano size!" Then Liu came over to practice. (The two met in a popular course, "Physics and Music," where he is a longtime grad-student instructor; together they once produced a song for an "American Idol" songwriting competition.) Turning the snappy nano song into a video was challenging — requiring the talents of Patrick Bennett (cinematography and editing) and a troupe of students and alums to build and manipulate puppets for the shoot.

"The Nano Song" is currently the top-rated and most-viewed contest submission (with more than 12,000 views on the ACS site). So its creators are "cautiously optimistic" about their chances for taking the $500 prize — which they hope to drop at Chez Panisse.

To see "behind the scenes" photos of the video's making, or download an MP3, visit The Nano Song website.