Beijing Bicycle

3 October, 2005 at 9:45 pm (doric, music)

The first musical artist I ever seriously listened to, eagerly awaiting the release of each new album, was Weird Al Yankovic. While other kids were discovering the Beastie Boys and Tiffany, my musical diet consisted of Weird Al and Tom Lehrer. So parody is practically my native tongue.

Which may be why this article particularly tickled me, much in the same way that Erica-Lynn Gambino‘s take on William Carlos Williams’ “This is just to say” did. A new UK single by “identikit singer/songwriter” Katie Melua entitled “Nine Million Bicycles” has come under fire by cosmologist Simon Singh. Singh takes issue with Ms. Melua’s cavalier lyrical treatment of the scope of the measureable universe in a column in the Guardian United:

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.

When Katie sings “We are 12 billion light-years from the edge”, she is suggesting that this is the distance to the edge of the observable universe, which in turn implies that the universe is only 12 billion years old. This is incredibly frustrating, because there are thousands of astronomers working day and (of course) night to measure the age of the universe, and the latest observations imply a universe that is almost 14 billion years old, not 12 billion.

…In short, Katie Melua has no right to call the age of the universe “a guess” or quote it as 12 billion years when we now know it to be 13.7 billion years old. You might think that I am being rather uptight, but the role of the scientist is slowly being undermined with a growing belief that scientific results are merely subjective guesses that go in and out of fashion. In fact, scientific results are a careful attempt to objectively measure reality, and although they may be refined over time, they are always our best hope of getting at the truth. In light of this, I propose that Miss Melua rewrite her opening verse so that it reads:

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

Most hilarious, even if it doesn’t scan. I actually have to agree with Mr. Singh, particularly in light of the recent article in the New York Times about the decline in elementary scientific knowledge, including the jaw-dropping statistic that one in five Americans actually believes that the sun revolves around the earth. However, the song is criminal is other important ways: it’s dull, it contains a cheekily-Asian chord pattern in the intro, and comes complete with a bizarre music video that starts as if it’s going to be structured in an homage to the classic “Powers of Ten” video, and then just goes… silly.

Another bright spot in all this was the discovery of the Fixed-Gear Gallery, a series of photographs of bicycles as an art form.

Thanks to Andrew Hogg for the article and John Mazzeo for the epithet.

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