In 2005, British balladeer Katie Melua had a hit record called “Nine Million Bicycles.” Among its lyrics were these lines:
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.
That September, science journalist Simon Singh took issue with her words in an op-ed he published in The Guardian. Noting that the latest data indicates that the age of the universe is actually 13.7 billion years, he wrote:
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
Here’s the kicker: at James Randi’s Amazing Meeting 8 this weekend in Las Vegas, Singh recalled that the day after his article appeared in the newspaper, Katie Melua contacted him and invited him to a nearby recording studio — where she re-did the song with his lyrics!
Want to hear how that sounded? Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, noted this happy ending and played both pieces of audio in a speech he gave at TED a couple of years ago…
Kudos to Singh for his scientific accuracy, and especially to Melua for her sense of humor!