Monday, December 01, 2008

Nine Million Bicycles

It is said in certain circles that we should endeavour to scientifically examine every facet of our lives, although in practice it is hard to find anyone who actually tries to live up to this principle. You don’t for example, find many people who would use Bayesian probability theory in order to decide whether to go down to the shops to pick up groceries; with the possible exception of some of the inhabitants of the internet infidels discussion board. Back in 2005 the popular science writer Simon Singh, author of 'Big Bang: The Origin Of The Universe', decided that singer-songwriter Katie Melua's work required critical examination and wrote a tongue in cheek article in the Guardian addressing her new hit ‘Nine Million Bicycles in Beijing’. The opening lyrics of this rather soporific ditty are:

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.

Singh wrote:

‘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. 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....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.

Unfortunately, Singh's correction is not accurate and demonstrates 'a deep ignorance of cosmology and no understanding of the scientific method'. While the age of the universe is 13.7 billion years, the distance to the "edge" of the observable universe is much larger (about 46 billion light years) because of the fast expansion of the universe. The number of bicycles in Beijing in 2002 was slightly larger than depicted in the song at around 10 million, but according to reports the number has dropped dramatically with the availability of cheap cars and an increase in public transport. Beijing is no longer ‘the kingdom of the bicycle’ and is fast becoming a gas guzzling Gehenna.

This kind of pedantry by the scientific establishment has a historical precedent. The inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage once contacted the poet Alfred Tennyson in response to his poem “The Vision of Sin". Babbage wrote:

"In your otherwise beautiful poem, one verse reads,

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born

... If this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth, the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death. I would suggest [that the next version of your poem should read]:

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment 1 1/16 is born.

Strictly speaking, the actual figure is so long I cannot get it into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry."

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Matthew said...

This may be of interest, along very similar lines -

Humphrey said...

Thanks for that. Very much liked the Ada Lovelace one.