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Rapping on physics: The nerds have co-opted cool

This is a bi-weekly column about microcelebrities - the often accidental stars of the viral videos and jpegs crowding our inboxes.

Revenge of the nerds never tasted so sweet.

First, they threaten our collective existence with the Large Hadron Collider, a gigantic scientific instrument built underground in Switzerland, which some scientists fear may generate a black hole. Then, coming to an in-box near you (if it hasn't already): Katherine McAlpine's Large Hadron Rap, a catchy "old-skool" tune that breaks down the physics of the machine.

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"Two beams of protons swing round, through the ring they ride / Till in the hearts of the detectors, they're made to collide / And all that energy packed in such a tiny bit of room / Becomes mass, particles created from the vacuum."

In the YouTube video - which has had 3.5 million views - Ms. McAlpine can be seen laying down beats in the tunnels of the LHC with frolicsome scientists/back-up dancers in hardhats. The nerds have co-opted cool, creating a pop culture Big Bang.

Ms. McAlpine, who goes by the nom de rap Alpinekat, is a 23-year-old science writer from Michigan with an undergraduate degree in particle physics. Her foray into rhymes began with The Mona Flow, a nuclear-physics rap based on Eminem's Lose Yourself. (She's not a fan of hip hop, generally, but she makes the odd exception. "Eminem is often clever," she muses, "even though he's a terrible misogynist.") It was never recorded. "It's far too full of jargon," she says.

This was followed by N3UROCH!P Rap, a minor opus about two physicists from Tel Aviv who imprinted rudimentary memories onto a network of living neurons.

"I wrote it in the morning when I didn't feel like looking for other work to do when I was an intern at the American Physical Society," she says from London, where she lives and works when she isn't in Geneva. She sent it to her boss, who commissioned first an MP3, then a video. Ms. McAlpine's first video is rough around the edges - she did the beatboxing track herself - but charming: "A neural network is some brain cells attached to a plate / The neurons all connect 'cause that's their natural state / They fire in a pattern, electrically / It's almost like there's neural choreography."

But it was really her LHC rap that's elevated her to her present semi-stardom. The video has spurred both marriage proposals - "Sorry fellas, I'm taken!" she says - and global remixes. "There's a man in Venezuela who actually put it into Spanish, in rhyme," she says. "It's very good."

While the success of Ms. McAlpine's oeuvre is novel, she's part of a bigger movement. It's called Nerdcore, a term that was coined by nerd rapper MC Frontalot in 2000. "To me," nerdcore artist Monzy writes on his website, "nerdcore is all about the idea that everyone is pimp in their own way. ... Everyone has their own special skills to be proud of, and nerdcore is all about embracing the things that make you unique, even if they are not widely appreciated."

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Nerdcore rappers may rap about comic books, computers or straight science; their commonality lies in how they self-identify. MC Hawking performs with a talking computer as an homage to physicist Stephen Hawking, tackling subjects such as entropy, Grand Theft Auto and hating creationists. MC Frontalot's tunes include Diseases of Yore (shout-outs to scrofula and tarantism), Goth Girls (a paean to same), and Rhyme of the Nibelung, about Wagner's opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. There are two documentaries about the subculture, Nerdcore Rising and Nerdcore for Life, both released this year. Extreme fans can even make a pilgrimage to Nerdapalooza, an annual nerdcore festival.

Halifax's Sean Jordan, a.k.a. the Wordburglar, had the dubious honour of being asked to perform at Nerdapalooza in Orlando, Fla., this year. Although he doesn't consider himself nerdcore proper, he concedes an affinity. "I'm totally a nerd," the 27-year-old says. And his appeal to the audience is clear: Imagine Eminem if he rapped about enjoying Cream of Wheat as a healthy breakfast or the difficulties of having a paper route.

"It was a weird, fun, really inclusive event," he says.

"... I mean, you'd be performing and you'd look out into the audience and there'd be three people playing Game Boys linked up together in one corner, but then you'd have three people getting drunk and smoking on the other side."

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