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Lab Track: Nine Million Bicycles

katie meluaToday’s Lab Track requires a bit of explanation. Back in 2005, British singer Katie Melua had a track on the radio entitled “Nine Million Bicycles.” In it, she mentions various facts about the world (for example, there are nine million bicycles in Beijing, there are six billion people in the world [this was 2005, folks, cool your jets]), then uses a bit of poetic finagling to connect them to the fact that she really loves the person that the song is about.

If Katie Melua learned one thing that year, it was this: when you use facts about the world in a song that gets radio play, those facts had better be accurate. Otherwise, Simon Singh will be on your ass.

First, listen to the full song below:

The lines in particular that Sing had a problem with are as follows:

We are twelve 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.

He wrote a piece for The Guardian pointing out the errors in these lyrics. Firstly, the distance from Earth to the edge of the observable universe, a distance that directly translates to the age of said universe, is more like 14 billion light years. (He gave her some leeway on this point, however, assuming that a monosyllabic number like 12 probably fit the lyrics better than 14.) Second, and the most glaring error, according to Singh, was her suggestion that nobody can ever say that fact is true. “To say that the age of the universe is ‘a guess’ is an insult to a century of astronomical progress,” railed Singh. “The age of the universe is not just ‘a guess,’ but rather it is a carefully measured number that is now known to a high degree of accuracy.” He went on to explain the history of how scientists arrived at this number — it’s definitely worth reading.

Never one to avoid giving constructive criticism, Singh rewrote the lyrics to this:

We are 13.7 billion light years from the edge of the observable universe,
That’s a good estimate with well-defined error bars,
Scientists say it’s true, but acknowledge that it may be refined,
And with the available information, I predict that I will always be with you

Since I’ve found lots of eye-rolling comments about this article in my research on it, I should point this out now: Simon Singh didn’t pen an article in The Guardian just to rain on some pop singer’s parade. He did it because he rightly recognized a chance to use a pop phenomenon to teach a bit of science to the everyman.

And it clearly worked. The BBC brought both Singh and Melua on to have a talk about their “spat.” And wouldn’t you know it, Katie Melua sang her song with Singh’s rewritten lyrics. How cool is that? Though the full chat is only available in RealAudio format and unable to be embedded in this post (you can listen here if you have the right plugins), there’s a YouTube clip of Michael Shermer using the example in his TED Talk. Give it a listen:

This has been another installment of Monday Lab Tracks. Send us your musical recommendations through our contact link at the top of the page, and tell us what you think of the song in the comments below!

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Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer (aka Smashley) is a saxophonist and writer living in Chicago, where she performs regularly with the funk band FuzZz and jazz ensemble Big Band Boom. She also does standup comedy, sort of, sometimes. Her tenor saxophone's name is Ladybird.

1 Comment

  1. April 23, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    How cool is that indeed. Tweeted it to my tens of followers.

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