25 Dec 2014

The Singing Scientist

From Our Changing World, 9:46 pm on 25 December 2014

by Ruth Beran

AgResearch’s Matthew Barnett (also known as the Singing Scientist) has written a new song called The Good Oil.

It’s a song about fat, or lipids. “It’s my attempt to dispel the myth that low fat is necessarily good, and high fat is necessarily bad,” says Matthew, who is based at the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland.

Matthew has played music for most of his life, starting with a ukulele. “That was the only thing I could get my hands around,” he says.

A photo of Matthew Barnett the Singing Scientist

Matthew Barnett the Singing Scientist Photo: AgResearch

Music is a great medium, according to Matthew, because most people like music and it’s a good way to get a message across in an interesting way. He believes that simplifying complicated messages into songs, means they are clear, and people are more likely to remember the message because there’s a tune attached.

Matthew’s research interests are nutrition and health, and his first attempt at singing science was The Epigenome Song about the concept of epigenetics.

His newest song, The Good Oil, has four verses. The first verse is about the perception that fat is bad, the second verse is about good fats we should be eating, the third verse highlights that for some people even these fats are bad, and the fourth comes back to the fact that having some fat in your diet is good.

“Fats are essential to our health,” says Matthew.

For example, Omega 3 is a long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid found in fish that is good for our health. A number of nuts and seeds are also rich in Omega 3, and there’s also the option of fish oil or krill oil tablets. “Of course there’s the associated problem of overfishing so if everyone wants to get their Omega 3s from fish then, we might have a bit of an environmental conundrum to deal with,” says Matthew.

And because life, and science, is complex, Matthew has to focus his thinking when writing songs. “There are some simple key messages that you can get across that in general are true and might be useful for some people,” says Matthew. If people want to know more about these complexities he hopes his songs will spur people to find out a bit more.

Matthew says that he did have a “grandiose plan of an album” but at the moment it’s just an idea. If it indeed eventuated, the songs on the album would be about food and health, and his next song might be on the construction of an ideal meal. “I’m increasingly becoming wary of picking on a nutrient because as human beings we don’t eat nutrients we eat food, within which nutrients are contained,” he says. “So understanding the context of a nutrient within the food is very important.”

Matthew Barnett has been on Our Changing World previously talking about epigenetics.

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