Simon Singh Rocks!

By cjohnson | October 15, 2005 2:59 am

Just heard a Radio 4 Today programme piece involving Simon Singh, a pop song, and the age of the universe. Since the audio is not up yet, I’ll refer to this Guardian article which Simon wrote, and then quote from it. Simon Singh is a science writer. I’ve referred to his work before. He wrote, for example, the excellent book Big Bang, which I urge you to read if you’re looking for a marvellous history of the idea and science of the Big Bang and the development of modern cosmology in general.

Anyway, the story goes that some singer I’ve never heard of called Katie Melua wrote a song called Nine Million Bicycles. (Note that it is currently in the top 10 on the song charts, so lots of kids are listening to it.) Simon did not like the words. Now let’s see if you recognize the tone in Simon’s narrative:

In the past, I have found her ballads to be enchanting, but Katie’s latest little ditty is deeply annoying, because she demonstrates a deep ignorance of cosmology and no understanding of the scientific method.

Familiar? He could be mistaken for a CosmicVariance blogger, if a bit less gentle in his manner (although I will blow a fuse below).

Anyway here are the words:

There are nine million bicycles
in Beijing,
That’s a fact,
It’s a thing we can’t deny,
Like the fact that I will love you
till I die.

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.

Simon goes on to say (he says it so well, I’ve no option but to just quote):

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.

I suspect that Katie took some poetic licence in order to make her lyrics scan. She replaced the bisyllabic number “14” with the nearest monosyllabic number, namely 12″. This alteration is just about acceptable, but the next line in the song is unforgivable. To say that the age of the universe is “a guess” is an insult to a century of astronomical progress. 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 goes on to say:

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.

Simon does not stop there. He is a physicist after all, and we firmly believe that we can have a go at doing any task (just smile indulgently at that remark and let it go, please), and so he offers a rewrite of the song:

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

Of course, the only reason Radio 4 carried this story was not because they give a damn about science literacy, but because they can have fun with this by getting her to come on and sing the rewritten song so that we can all laugh and say “those boffins are very clever, but they can’t write lyrics that scan”. And indeed, this is what they do in the piece. Such a giggle. (Almost certainly this is why the Guardian carried the piece in the first place, and probably why Simon -or his literary agent- thought of writing the song lyrics so clumsily -in order to get picked up by the press…but you might think I’m cynical, so I’ll stop.) (They are finally podcasting or streaming the whole of the Radio 4 Today programme, so if you want to hear the piece, it was at about 7:35am or so on the Saturday 15th Oct show, which you’ll find on this page.)

They do give Simon some air time to say his piece, which is good, and alleviates some of my annoyance at this segment’s undertone. And it is rather nice that they end with him saying: “It’s a long time since I did physics research, but it never quite leaves you”.

[Update: As several have pointed out in the comments (as should have I in the original post, but I was focusing on a different point – sorry), while Simon is right about trying to get the age of the universe right ~13.7 bn yrs, he falls into the song’s trap that this can be converted into the size of the universe by simply multiplying by the speed of light. As Simon knows (!), the universe is expanding. But that’s not the central point of this post. ]

* * *

Oh, wait. That was supposed to be the end of the piece, but then I spotted that the song’s writer, Mike Batt (who we are told also wrote the Wombles theme tune, which I think is supposed to endear us to him and further alienate the science guy), wrote a piece in the Guardian to reply to Simon.

He starts out:

I would remind Mr Singh that if we are talking in billions of years, 0.7 of a billion is a vague approximation in itself.

Oh God. Not if we’re talking about 12 or 13 of them, you ignorant fool. That’s 5-6%. This first volley does not bode well. He continues:

The song does not “guess” which edge we are 12bn light years from. Could it not be the edge of a planet or star which happens to be (according to current scientific estimation based on available information) 1.7bn light years this side of the edge of the observable universe, which he claims to be 13.7bn light years away?

Edge!? Other edge!? Aaaaaaarrrrgh. I can’t read further…

…but my duty to you, dear reader, forces me to struggle through garbage about counting bicycles, attractive chinese tour guides (no doubt put in to show how much of a real he-man he is as compared to the wimpy science guy), and then he ends with:

As a scientific pedant, I’m sure he will accept the apology of one pedant to another (my pedantry being directed towards use of the English language) for the fact that the fourth sentence of this article ends with a preposition, but at least I am not one to flagrantly split an infinitive, as he does by using the phrase “to objectively measure”. Scientists are allowed to split atoms, but please lay off infinitives.

You see what we’re up against folks? Shocking ignorance, misdirection using irrelevances and smack-him-in-the-face smugness – combined as only my countrymen can do so well. This wallowing in ignorance is why we’re going to have a devil of a time making real progress as a society and a civilization on really important issues of science. It’s all connected. See my final paragraph in my previous post on the energy crisis, for example. And this is why I get so annoyed and exasperated when people write in and say “it’s only those whacky Americans who have science education problems, not us superior British”. No. No. No. The seeds are right there, and they’re sprouting.

I’m so, so annoyed because this twaddle of an article will be left as some sort of last word on the matter.



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