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When rap, physics, and fame collide

Kate McAlpine's rap video on the Large Hadron Collider has earned her YouTube acclaim, but to her the highest honor comes from teachers who want to show it in the classroom.

Michelle Meyers
Michelle Meyers wrote and edited CNET News stories from 2005 to 2020 and is now a contributor to CNET.
Michelle Meyers
4 min read

You can put Kate McAlpine in a giant particle accelerator 300 feet underground. You can even put her in a rap video. Just don't put her in a box.

That's a tenet the 23-year-old Michigan native--who recently climbed the YouTube charts with a rap video on the Large Hadron Collider--embraced long ago in choosing a career as a science writer. She tips the hat to her dad, who was annoyed by the results of her career aptitude test in high school that sought to place her in a particular field.

"They're trying to put you in a box," she recalls her father saying. But they didn't succeed. (Read: her dual degree from Michigan State University in professional writing and physics and an excerpt from her personal statement. "I have pitched my camp at a crossroads: the intersection of science and writing.")

Kate McAlpine in ATLAS
Kate McAlpine poses for a shot inside the Large Hadron Collider's ATLAS detector, which is now the focus of her communications work for CERN. Cristina Jimenez

Further determined to bring together the worlds of art and science (and the cool kids with the geeks) McAlpine, aka "alpinekat" started writing rap songs to help explain scientific principles, a sort of School House Rock meets Bill Nye the Science Guy with a hip-hop twist.

Her first rap was about Michigan State's National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory, where she was a summer intern. She notes that it was loosely based on Eminem's "Lose Yourself," mostly for the "Back to the lab again yo" line. She wrote the second one on neurochips while working as an intern for the American Physical Society. She turned that rap into a video and put it up on YouTube.

McAlpine didn't hit the big time, however, until the third aforementioned piece, "Large Hadron Rap," which, in simple-but-not-dumbed-down terms, explains the particle physics experiments to take place at CERN's Large Hadron Collider, where McAlpine has been interning in various writing and communications capacities. The rap video--featuring her fellow CERN interns dancing in the gigantic particle accelerator some 300 feet underground on the French-Swiss border--has been viewed on YouTube more than 3.3 million times and has triggered almost 1,000 viewer comments.

"I had hoped this (rap) would go a little farther than the last and people would learn something about the LHC," she said. "But no way did I expect it to go this far."

It's been "one of the best PR efforts attached to the LHC," said James Riordon, media relations head and McAlpine's former boss at the American Physical Society. Riordon, who encouraged McAlpine to turn the neurochip rap into an MP3 and video, added that not only is she a ham willing to "put her nerdiness out there," but her raps and other writings are engaging, informative, and accurate.

McAlpine, who splits her time working for CERN between London and Geneva, put the Large Hadron Rap up on YouTube at the end of July. But its viewership numbers didn't take off until about a week or so before the LHC's September 10 launch date. (The LHC has since been shut down until spring due to a malfunction that caused a helium leak.) YouTube put the rap on its home page as a featured video and then CNN and a flood of other media outlets started to notice, she said.

And people apparently just couldn't get enough. "When I put up the Large Hadron Rap, 600 people had seen the neurochip rap (embedded below)," said McAlpine, whose formal musical training is limited to high school band. "And now, last I checked, (the neurochip rap) had over 10,000 views."

McAlpine prefers the Large Hadron Rap to her earlier works because she brought on a talented outsider--Will Barras, the brother of one of the CERN communications interns--to lay the beats. In all, the video took about 35 to 40 hours to write and produce, McAlpine estimated. Of course, that didn't include the time it took to clear the filming of the video down in the LHC cavern. In response to her request, the head of the press office wrote, "I heard you were trying to bring rappers into the Atlas (detector) cavern." She said she sent him back the lyrics for review and explained the "rappers" were mere interns, "no one really risque."

Response to the rap video, for the most part, has been overwhelming positive, even among physicists. A few, however, "think that particle physics is far too serious to be featured in a rap video," McAlpine said. Many of the YouTube comments, she added, are from those worried about black holes.

But the best responses, McAlpine said, have been requests from teachers who want to show the rap video in their classrooms.

"I guess that's probably the highest honor," she said, adding that she's made the video downloadable from both YouTube and TeacherTube.

Next up for McAlpine: a rap on the results of the LHC experiments, which she promises in the first LHC rap will "rock you in the head."