Thursday, March 18, 2010

Valleys of Neptune Not in Tune With the Times

Released last week, Valleys of Neptune contains twelve previously unreleased tracks by Jimi Hendrix. This is just another example of popular music promoting bad science. Regardless of the fact that the album title is taken from the song of the same name, Legacy Records should know better: Neptune is an "ice giant" and thus has no valleys because it is composed of gases thousands of miles thick, with no solid surface. Hendrix, who wrote the song in 1969—twenty years before the Voyager 2 fly-by—probably possessed little knowledge of Neptune's internal structure. But by the album's release last week, the planet's composition had long been commonly known, and one would think that Legacy Records should have an astrophysicist on staff to prevent such egregious errors. Unfortunately, a new generation now being introduced to Jimi Hendrix's music is liable to believe that Neptune is a terrestrial body, misleading countless young minds. Such a cavalier attitude toward scientific fact might have been "rock & roll" in 1969...but it's no more "hip" now than patchouli oil and moon landings.

Such scientific liberties have long posed a problem in the music world. For instance: Bonnie Tyler's 1983 hit, "Total Eclipse of the Heart"—the heart never undergoes and eclipse because nothing revolves around it. Alright, for the sake of argument, let's postulate that a cholesterol blob is circulating around the pericardial sac. This blob would be so small compared to the heart that it would constitute not an eclipse, but rather a transit, such as when Mercury transits the sun or one of the Galilean moons transits Jupiter (seen above). Ms. Tyler scored her biggest hit with the song, but "Total Eclipse of the Heart" was an affront to the field of astronomy.

Likewise for Peter Frampton's "I Wanna Go to the Sun." Sure, Peter, you do that. But I sure hope I don't feel like you do as you're being fatally irradiated long before you approach the sun, your last words agonizingly whimpered with a voice that now sounds the same as through that talk box that once made you famous.

And the same goes for Pink Floyd's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun." Which one's Pink? They'll all be pink—and juicy—before they even get inside Mercury's orbit, let alone anywhere near the sun.*

* Actually, the above is not Pink Floyd's only scientific slip-up. In "Cirrus Minor," David Gilmour sings the couplet: "On a trip to Cirrus Minor/Saw a crater in the sun." Of course, the sun has no craters—it's an incendiary ball of gas with no solid surface to be cratered. As the chief proponents of "space rock," such factual sloppiness on the Floyd's part is puzzling, to say the least, and clearly what kept the More soundtrack album from spending longer on the Billboard 200 chart than The Dark Side of the Moon's 741 consecutive weeks.

Even a stylish and ostensibly less rebellious crooner such as Stevie Wonder got into the misinformation act, singing "My cherie amour/Distant as the Milky Way." A beautiful sentiment sung to a gorgeous melody. Problem is, Stevie's in the Milky Way. He hardly can sing with any accuracy of something distant while physically occupying that very object—at least not without specifying how distant his cherie amour is.

Now, what Stevie should have sung was, "My cherie amour/Distant as the fuzzy arms of the Milky Way which are visible only under extremely dark skies and most easily during the summer and winter months"—and damn the problematic meter and rhyme scheme!

In more empirical terms, don't think The Who are any more scientifically reliable. Roger Daltrey sings that he "can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles..." Given that each miles represents a minimum of two miles to justify its plural form, multiplied by the 5 miles sung in the aforementioned line, Daltrey's claiming to see for at least 10 miles.

However, the accepted limit of human visibility, as determined in nautical miles—because, of course, the ocean will afford an unobscured horizon, unlike London and New York, where the song was recorded—is calculated (according to multiple nautical sources) as:

Visible distance (in nmi) = 1.17 × the square root of the eye's height (in feet)

Thus, [the square root of Roger Daltrey's height (5'7", or 5.583 feet) = 2.363] × 1.17 = 2.765 miles.

So Roger Daltrey actually can only see 2.765 miles, or just over one "lyrical" mile. This hardly even constitutes the song's title, let alone "I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles..."*

*Even if we base the calculations on the 6'0" Pete Townshend, who wrote the song, this still only comes out to a paltry 2.866 miles.

For anyone in The Who to have seen for "miles and miles and miles and miles and miles," he would have had to been recording the song at a height of at least 73 feet—something not even the loony Keith Moon would have attempted.

Frankly, I think Daltrey was probably just high on beans...

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For an example of popular music that promotes good science, see the Mount Drinkmore entry, "They're Special, So Special, Alright..." of July 23, 2009, via the blog archive or keyword science.

(Transit of Io courtesy of NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.)

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