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Science and ‘The Genius’

Intellect rules for hip-hop star, who keeps the teachers well on their toes

By Mary Carmichael
Globe Staff / December 3, 2011
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CAMBRIDGE - In the history of hip-hop disses, there never has been a line as scientifically literate as this: “Most rappers don’t know diamonds are minerals, that they’re crystalline, and that’s what gives a diamond its shine. They talk about gold and they don’t even know it’s an element.’’

But that’s the kind of bookish lyricism you get when Harvard and MIT professors hang out with a hip-hop superstar nicknamed “The Genius.’’

GZA - a.k.a. Gary Grice, founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan - is known for an omnivorous intellect and complex lyrics that reference, among other things, astronomy, philosophy, and chess, which he has played since childhood. He was in town this week to lecture at the Harvard Black Men’s Forum.

But first, he wanted to drop some science. Specifically, oceanography. And biology. And quantum physics. So he went on a three-day tour, meeting scientists around Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and learning.

On Wednesday, there was a visit with Philip Richardson, a physicist who studies how albatrosses fly without flapping their wings. Then there was dinner with a group of young Harvard biologists. The conversation wandered all over. Why is wheat grass good for you, and is it similarly smart to eat Chia Pet seeds? (Surprisingly, yes.) What exactly is RNA, the favorite nucleic acid of Harvard biologist John Rinn, who had brought the group together - and why did Rinn call his work “genomic origami?’’

There was also much discussion of water, a particular interest of GZA, whose albums include “Beneath the Surface’’ and the classic “Liquid Swords.’’ (He’s working on a follow-up to the latter.) What makes water molecules vibrate in funky ways? Temperature, pressure, pH, and salt, said Rinn. What’s the ideal alkalinity for drinking? Around 8.5, said GZA, who recently bought a $4,500 ionizer because he was tired of spending $7 a day on Fiji Water.

There was music criticism, too. Pardis Sabeti, a Harvard evolutionary biologist who moonlights as the lead singer of a rock band, told GZA she was disappointed in what record executives want these days. Too generic, she said. GZA agreed.

The group moved on to the Broad Institute, the joint Harvard and MIT biomedical research center, where GZA checked out a genome sequencer and learned how DNA makes proteins. Within a few minutes, he was deep in a discussion of storytelling with Eric Lander, the renowned biologist who leads the institute. (Lander’s three children are fans.) He peered at the robots the institute uses to screen thousands of chemicals that could become new drugs. He picked up a pair of lab goggles that looked like a Kanye West fashion statement.

And then? Bedtime. It was a school night, and GZA had to be up early Thursday morning for “class.’’

This time, the teacher was Penny Chisholm, an MIT marine biologist who studies a photosynthetic ocean bacterium called prochlorococcus.

“Prochlorococcus?’’ said GZA.

“Prochlorococcus,’’ said Chisholm. “I think it would be good in a rap song.’’

GZA didn’t seem opposed to the idea. “It’s just amazing to hear how things work,’’ he said, pondering a bottle the size of a nail polish container with a billion bacteria inside. Prochlorococci are the most abundant photosynthetic organisms on Earth, but they were unknown until 1985, said Chisholm: “That’s just a symbol of how little we know about our planet.’’

“And ourselves,’’ said GZA.

“They represent the essence of life. It’s inspiring for us,’’ said Chisholm.

“It’s inspiring for me,’’ said GZA.

Then things got trippy.

“The sun rules everything,’’ Chisholm said, unintentionally name-checking the Wu-Tang hit “C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me).’’ “I think people ought to bow to the sun every day. And then bow to a plant.’’

“I’m always touching plants and vibing with them,’’ said GZA.

“Some people think plants can hear us,’’ said the scientist.

“They can,’’ said the celebrity.

That was before Chisholm admitted she had looked up GZA’s rhymes and studied them with the help of a poet friend.

The lyrical feast moved from Chisholm’s office to her lab. GZA peered at a newly discovered marine virus. Pretty soon, he and Chisholm were in a corner talking about lyrics again.

Time was running short, and The Genius needed to see other geniuses: Junot Díaz, the Pulitzer-winning novelist; David Kaiser, author of “How the Hippies Saved Physics;’’ a group at MIT’s Media Lab working on an “Opera of the Future.’’ There was also the primary reason he was in town: the Black Men’s Forum lecture, where, between rapping and reminiscing about how he learned flow from nursery rhymes, he would deliver a few starry-eyed paeans to Chisholm’s research.

Before he left her lab, Chisholm had two final questions. One: Would he like to christen that unnamed virus he had been inspecting? (Yes. But give him time to think.) Two: Did he want some gifts? Chisholm handed him the bottle of prochlorococcus and a T-shirt with a picture of bright green bacteria. She pointed at a tiny structure the microbes use to capture carbon dioxide: “It’s the carboxysome.’’

“Carboxysome,’’ said GZA, slowly rolling it on his tongue. It was almost too obvious to say, but Chisholm, GZA’s manager, a photographer, and this reporter all laughed and said it anyway: That would be good in a rap song.

Mary Carmichael can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.

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