Monday, July 25, 2016

Astrophysics + Rock-n-Roll = Time Dilation

Queen guitarist Brian May
Not ham radio related but, since many hams are interested in various sciences, here's a neat combination of unlikely threads. This song played recently on my Pandora radio and when I looked at the display, I was quite surprised that I was listening to 70 & 80's rock band Queen.

Like others my age, I am quite familiar with Queen's music though I never was their biggest fan. As I listened to this little gem of a tune, I realized that the lyrics were of a topic quite unlike any other song I've ever heard by anyone. A bit of research confirmed what I thought the lyrics meant. I also learned that the song's writer and singer, Brian May, is, in addition to being Queen's lead guitarist, also a PhD astrophysicist.

The song, '39, deals with time dilation - the theory that a traveler in space, going near the speed of light, will experience the passage of time much more slowly than a stationary person.

The song is the story of twenty space travelers leaving Earth (in 2039?) seeking a new home for civilization. They return exactly one later in their time, one century in Earth's time (2139?) (For so many years have gone, though I'm older but a year) and the Earth is old and gray. His daughter has grown old and died but he tries to see her through his granddaughter (Your mother's eyes, from your eyes, cry to me).

Quite a unique and haunting song. This is miles  - or should I say light-years - away from We will, we will rock you. Maybe Brian May will record a song about Long-Delayed Echoes.....



K2WO said...

Great stuff John. I was not particularly a fan of Queen, but I too am familiar with many of their songs. I have to say that "Bohemian Rhapsody" was my favorite from Queen. Nevertheless, I remember this song, but honestly had NO idea what it was about. Thanks for the enlightenment. That song will never be the same for me the next time I hear it! :) Have a great week.



John AE5X said...

Here's a more complete description from someone name DouglasNC (that's right, folks - not just ham radio here!):

"Such a fantastic song, one of my favorites. A Brian May composition which is a bit of a departure from the power progressive style of Queen. It's a science fiction tale which brilliantly employs a part of Einsteins theory of Relativity, time dilation. Meaning as speed increases time expands; a week becomes a month, a month becomes a year, etc. It tells a story of a group of space voyagers (the volunteers), who in the year of 39 (could be 2239, 2339, who knows) depart a dying Earth in a space ship to explore a distant world for habitability. Presumably a government project, essentially scouting the planet for colonization. If they were to travel at speeds approaching the speed of light then the effects of time dilation would dramatically reduce the rate at which they age. A year back on Earth could mean only a day to them physiologically. If you follow the words you can piece together it took the volunteers 100 years to complete the mission, returning to Earth exactly one century later (in the year of 39 came a ship in from the blue). It's the year of 39.... in the next century.

Upon their return they discover the world they left no longer exists. They have been gone a century yet the effects of time dilation has aged them only a year. Their families are long dead, the Earth has deteriorated to a gray planet. They came back to report the world they explored is vibrant and perfect for humanity. But their good news is quickly squashed by the realization that they are now refugees in time.

The song seems to have a dual narrative; a third person perspective telling the tale of the voyage and their return underlying a first person conversation. "Can't you hear me calling you, though you're many years away?" is an imaginary conversation between one of the volunteers and presumably his wife, speaking to her through space and time. "write your letters in the sand", to me, seems to suggest leaving him a message etched in the earth he will see when he returns, perhaps a tree or stone. "for the day I take your hand in the land that our grandchildren knew." is simply a longing to return to the time and place with his loved ones. A land he knows his grandchildren will inhabit in his absence.

I think the line "your mother's eyes from your eyes cry to me." suggest the voyager has met one of his children. After so long it has to be assumed his child is now a centenarian. And he is still a young man.

"For my life's still ahead, pity me." means he is now alone and will live out the rest of his life displaced in time with no one.

Lyrically the song does not give you all the information you would need to assemble the events or meaning of those events. It only gives you enough to put together a long voyage and it's effects physically and psychologically. What I love is the way it's intentionally framed as a sea voyage to a new land, not as a journey into space. Unless you knew "though I'm older but a year" meant a very specific phenomena of intergalactic travel, you would be confused by that. But that is precisely what it is, and Mays knew enough about astrophysics to use it as the basis for a sad tale of loss."