Music and Science: Stop Right There

In the following, our writer, Aran Shaunak, imagines what a conversation between Freddie Mercury and his producer might have been like, if his producer had been a huge science nerd and wanted to correct Freddie’s ‘alternative facts’.

“Freddie, sit down. I have some concerns about the lyrics of that new song.”

Don’t stop me now…

“Yeah. That’s the one. There are some serious scientific inaccuracies in it that I find rather worrying. We should think about correcting them.”

…Don’t stop me, ‘cause I’m having a good time, having a good time…

“I understand that, and don’t get me wrong it’s a great song. Love it. I just think we could sort out some of the biggest issues before we release it!”

I’m a shooting star leaping through the sky

 “Shooting stars are fragments of rock and debris from space that enter our atmosphere, and fall at speeds of between 25,000 and 160,000 miles per hour. At speeds that fast, the rock compresses the air in front of it so much that it makes shockwaves that heat up the air. Despite what many people think, it isn’t actually friction that heats up shooting stars! This air compression generates so much heat that the rock glows hot. So what we see from Earth – the beautiful shooting stars streaking across the sky – are bits of rock burning up miles above us in the atmosphere. A human, travelling at that speed through the Earth’s atmosphere would burn up in seconds in an agonising death, even wearing a spacesuit. So, while becoming a shooting star might sound poetic, I guarantee it’s not a good idea.”

Like a tiger defying the laws of gravity

“Nothing can defy the laws of gravity. Whether we think of gravity as a force pulling us down, like Newton did when the apple fell from the tree… Or we think of it in the sense of the more modern model; as a curve in the fabric of space-time… Every particle in the universe is affected by the pull of gravity. To avoid interacting with gravity, something must have zero energy, and something with zero energy, by definition, cannot exist. So I’m afraid that tiger would drop like a stone.”

I’m a racing car passing by, like Lady Godiva

“There’s a pretty glaring historical issue here. Lady Godiva was famous for riding through Coventry on a horse, not in a car. To be anything like her you’d be driving a one horsepower car, and given an F1 car these days can have 1,000 brake horsepower, a one brake horsepower car would hardly turn heads. In fact, given the average car is around 10 times heavier than the average horse, the power-to-weight ratio of a one horsepower car would be so low I would be surprised if it could move at all. Of course, Lady Godiva was famous for riding through town naked, but you’ve probably got that part covered.”

I’m gonna go, go, go, there’s no stopping me

“Only if you’re in space. Down here on earth you’ve got friction to contend with, whether that’s on the floor or air resistance. That friction turns kinetic energy (or movement) into heat, which slows you down and will eventually stop you unless you keep putting in more energy. That’s why perpetual motion is impossible, because whenever something moves, some energy is lost as heat due to friction. In the vacuum of deep space, where there is no air resistance and therefore no friction, you could indeed go, go, go without stopping – although there’s always the chance that you’d eventually crash into a planet, a star or a black hole.”

I’m burning through the sky yeah, two hundred degrees
That’s why they call me Mister Fahrenheit

“You’ve fallen into a schoolboy scientist’s trap here: you’ve forgotten to include the units! Do you mean degrees Celsius or degrees Fahrenheit? I would guess Fahrenheit, except two hundred degrees Fahrenheit isn’t even that hot. As we already discussed, shooting stars are incredibly hot – around 500 degrees Celsius in fact, which works out at almost 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, so you might need to rewrite this line. And you must always include the units.”

“Also, just a note that you can’t call yourself Mr Fahrenheit. That’s identity fraud. Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit was a real person, born in 1686, a famous scientist who invented the Fahrenheit temperature scale in 1724. You can’t just claim his invention for yourself.”

I’m travelling at the speed of light,
I wanna make a supersonic man out of you

“I don’t even know where to begin with this line. It’s impossible to travel at the speed of light. You do know that’s 330,000,000 m/s? With massive advances in technology in the future we could be travelling at very close to the speed of light, but according to current theories, travelling at the speed of light would open up a black hole.”

“Anyway, supersonic refers to travelling faster than sound. The speed of sound is only 340 m/s, which fighter jets round the world break every day. Describing the speed of light as ‘supersonic’ is like describing the moon as ‘heavier’ than a pea. If someone had the ability to move at the speed of light and only offered to make me a ‘supersonic’ man, I’d take that as an insult.”

Yeah, I’m a rocket ship on my way to Mars

“Mars is, on average, 225 million kilometres away. A journey to Mars, even when it is at its closest, is around 6 months. It’s hard to pack enough food, water, oxygen or fuel to keep you going that long.  You’ll need a way of recycling the oxygen your body uses during respiration, an efficient way of reclaiming the water you sweat, breathe or wee out, solar panels to provide unlimited power and maybe a farm to produce some fresh food to keep you going. Do you have a plan?”

On a collision course, I am a satellite, I’m out of control

“A satellite is something that orbits around the Earth, so if you’re meant to be on your way to Mars you haven’t got very far. As for being out of control, if you do crash here’s what you do: breathe out. It might seem odd, but if you hold your breath the high pressure in your lungs will cause them to explode in the vacuum of space and you’ll die instantly. Breathe out and you’ll survive long enough to suffocate instead!”

I am a sex machine ready to reload

“This is pretty much the only thing you’ve said that makes any scientific sense. Biologically, males of most species are pretty much just sex machines designed to impregnate as many women as possible, as fast as possible, and humans are no different. If you describe ‘reload’ in the crude sense of regenerating enough sperm to again have sex and impregnate a woman, then yes, ‘a sex machine ready to reload’ is a scientifically accurate description of a man just after he has ejaculated.”

Like an atom bomb about to
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh explode

“An atom bomb contains a core of radioactive material, like uranium. To trigger the bomb, neutrons are fired into the uranium core. These neutrons cause uranium atoms to split in half – which we call nuclear fission – and in the process release more neutrons. These neutrons go on to cause more uranium atoms to split, creating a chain reaction. Fission also produces a huge amount of energy, so this chain reaction produces an uncontrolled expansion of heat which we call an explosion. Unlike uranium, your body is made of very stable atoms which do not undergo radioactive decay. As such, they will not be able trigger a chain reaction and so you will never be able to explode like an atom bomb. Firing neutrons into you would be much less dramatic.”

La la la la la la la la la

“Freddie, have you listened to a word I’ve said?”

Lala la la, la la la la….

Aran Shaunak is studying for an MSc in Science Communication

Banner image: Freddie Mercury Statue, Bernd Brägelmann

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