BACK IN 2005, British singer-songwriter Katie Melua released the single “Nine Million Bicycles.” In the second stanza of the song, Melua uses a reference to a cosmological fact to drive her point home: “We are 12 billion light years from the edge/ That’s a guess, no one can ever say it’s true/ But I know that I will always be with you.”
It was a lovely song, and to no one’s surprise it reached the top of the charts in the UK.
But its popularity was the reason why many scientists took issue with the fact that the science was wrong. One British cosmologist, Simon Singh, even wrote an op-ed in no less than The Guardian to criticized what he called Melua’s “bad science.” In the op-ed, Singh pointed out that scientists in fact know how old the universe is—it’s 13.7 billion years old. Furthermore, that number is not just a guess but an estimate that was derived from the careful methods of science.
Singh reminded the reader that while there are many things about the universe that still remain a mystery to us and are yet to be solved by scientists, the age of the universe is not one of them. The science writer said it’s regrettable that such a lovely and popular song contains a misconception that can spread to the public.
To her credit, Melua’s response to Singh’s criticism was one of convivial apology for the error. With the help of Singh, Melua re-recorded the song so that the lines in question ended up being: “We are 13.7 billion light years from the edge of the observable universe/ That’s an estimate with well-defined error bars/ And with the available information/ I predict that I will always be with you.”
By re-recording the song, Melua and Singh not only got great publicity, they also educated the UK public about the true age of the universe and the methods of science.
Astronomy is a favorite source of references for writers, poets, and songwriters. There is no surprise there. Anyone who has looked up into a starry sky or has stared at the loveliness of a full moon can relate to the urge to wax poetic in the face of such grandeur. Furthermore, anyone who has studied even a bit of astronomy knows that the goings on in outer space can be such a treasure trove of metaphors for poetry and songwriting.
Nowadays, there is no shortage of pop songs talking about celestial objects. However, most of them simply use the words ‘star’ or ‘moon’ for a quick rhyme or trivial metaphor. Those songs themselves might be lovely, like Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me To The Moon” or Ed Sheeran’s “All Of The Stars,” but as songs about astronomy they are not interesting.
More interesting are songs that find a way to use facts about the heavens in order to express a facet of human experience. For example, in Liannne La Havas’ soothing song “Unstoppable,” the singer compares the long range of the gravitational force on satellites to the long reach of the love between her and her loved one. In “Bless The Broken Road” by Rascal Flatts, the singer compares the people who broke his heart to northern stars that lead him to the person he’s meant to be with. Filipino artist Reese Lansangan has a cute song entitled “A Song About Space” that is, well, all about space.
One of my absolute favorite is by the folk singer-songwriter Peter Mayer, whose discography is a constellation of excellent scientific references sung to folksy hymns. In “Blue Boat Home,” he compares the Earth to a boat in space, and we humans voyagers in space. The entire song is simply beautiful, but one line in particular reveals Mayer’s grasp of the science: “Sun my sail and moon my rudder/ As I ply the starry sea / Leaning over the edge in wonder / Casting questions into the deep.”
In the first line, Mayer does two things. First, he reinforces the sailing metaphor by comparing the Sun and Moon to parts of a boat. Second, he expresses scientific facts in a poetic way. As a ship’s sail allows it to be pushed forward, the Sun’s gravitational force is what makes the Earth “ply the starry sea.” As a boat’s rudder allows it to be steered and gives it stability, the Moon is thought to make the Earth’s orbit and rotation more stable.
So my challenge to all of the artists and creative people reading this: The next time you want to come up with a metaphor to express some aspect of human drama, try to learn a bit of astronomy. Not only can it make your composition more beautiful, it might even give you a metaphor you might not find elsewhere.
Decierdo is resident astronomer and physicist for The Mind Museum.