Scientific awe & wonder in Colleen Brown’s Swallowed Whole

Standing in my kitchen, I first heard this track on the CBC Radio program Key of A. Beautiful, haunting? Check. And inspired by Carl Sagan. What? The name caught me ear and I turned to the radio and, yes out loud, asked again “What?”. That brief mention was enough to make me very curious, and I tracked down Colleen Brown, the Edmonton singer-songwriter responsible for this gem to ask her about it.

There were a few inspirations for this track- first the Cosmos episode on dimensions! In this episode Carl Sagan illustrates with papers on a desktop how existence would seem to a 2-dimensional being, and how incomprehensible it would be for a 2D being to experience an interaction with a 3D being, since all of 2D’s experiences to that point would suggest that the only things that existed were the ones it could experience in its flat existence… This is hard to illustrate with words, I’m discovering, haha, which is why Sagan’s explanation is so helpful… Likewise we can infer that as 3D beings we could conceivably come in contact with 4D beings through some energetic interaction, and be confused by, or oblivious to, the contact we have made.  So that’s the first thought, exploring these intangible experiences and interactions we have with our limited senses and perceptions as 3Ds.

Wow, cool. Scientists don’t always come up as an inspiration for songs, especially songs that deal with intangible experiences, mysteries and feelings of wonder and, as Colleen said later on, “how, conceivably, if we are able to open our minds to a new way of interpreting the universe around us we may well learn that there are different levels to our current surroundings we simply haven’t seen or understood.” Frank Turner jokingly used photosynthesis as the antithesis of the creative life, but here the two seem inseparable.

The feeling that the song evokes of being trapped, of a voice calling from outside, half muffled by the surroundings wasn’t an accident.

The day we were set to work together there was a huge snowfall, at least a foot of snow in 24 hours.  Jesse [her collaborator on the song] remarked that he would make it to our session at my place if he wasn’t swallowed whole by the snow, which sent my mind spiraling into sci-fi territory, imagining this as an actual possibility- imagining us as specks, molecules in a universe where hydrogen and oxygen in the form of snowflakes suddenly eclipsed us in scale. Where would Jesse find himself if he was actually swallowed up by the snow?! (if not simply deceased! But even that concept leaves a lot of room for imagination and obviously is the inspiration for a lot of mystical concepts.) Generally it was this playful attitude of suspending disbelief that guided our approach to the whole session, and led to the instrumentation and the delivery that you hear on the recording… we both wanted to imagine this as a real possibility- what would that sound like?

The high school students that I work with often see science and art as opposites. Art is about exploration and wonder and asking unanswerable questions, and science is about logic and right answers. During some interviews about what it takes to be a science student, one Grade 10 girl told me: “I don’t really think you need creativity [in science] because it’s all facts and it’s proven and so you don’t really need to go above and beyond…You just need to do what you already know basically.” Another said “When you think of science people you usually think of them as being more straightforward thinking people.”

But Sagan is a perfect choice for this kind of intersection. He always kept a tone in his work that encouraged wonder rather than one that scolded the audience for not knowing enough or for thinking about things incorrectly. He himself was awed by the possibility for life outside the earth and wasn’t afraid to be imaginative in expressing that. In an article from last year’s launch of the new Cosmos I found a quote from the Sagan archives of a piece written as a very young man, as an undergrad in the 1950s. I think it’s something that Colleen would like. It seems like the perfect accompaniment to Swallowed Whole:

There is a wide yawning black infinity. In every direction the extension is endless, the sensation of depth is overwhelming. And the darkness is immortal. Where light exists, it is pure, blazing, fierce; but light exists almost nowhere, and the blackness itself is also pure and blazing and fierce. But most of all, there is very nearly nothing in the dark; except for little bits here and there, often associated with the light, this infinite receptacle is empty.

This picture is strangely frightening. It should be familiar. It is our universe.

Author: mcshanahan

Science education researcher and writer

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