The rockstar physicist grades the weirder lyrics of Coldplay, Bon Jovi, Sam Ryder, The Prodigy and more
Professor Brian Cox is the Ed Sheeran of science. Or maybe he’s the Beyoncé of science. Or The Rolling Stones. Now breaking his own world record for the highest grossing science tour in history, Cox shares a page in the Guinness Book Of Records with the biggest names in music.
And it’s not the first time he’s been in their company either – having started his career playing keys in D:Ream throughout the 80s and 90s. Heading back to university after the band broke up, Cox now rejects his biggest hit, ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, because it’s scientifically inaccurate (“it contradicts the second law of thermal dynamics that basically says things can only get worse…”).
Now in the middle of his biggest tour yet, Horizons: A 21st Century Space Odyssey, we caught up with the professor to ask him which other famous songs might annoy anyone with a doctorate in high-energy particle physics.
Coldplay – ‘Speed Of Sound’
“Planets are moving at the speed of light…”
“No. Just no. That makes no sense at all. Because unless you have no mass, like a photon, for example, you cannot travel at the speed of light. And that’s the way the universe works. Because planets have mass, they absolutely cannot travel at the speed of light. There’s another line in that song too that says, “birds go flying at the speed of sound…” and that would only make sense if the bird was flying Concorde.”
Frank Sinatra – ‘Fly Me To The Moon’
“Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars…”
“The planets orbit the sun, and Jupiter and Mars have a tilted axis, so we see seasons on both of those planets. Frank Sinatra is absolutely spot on there. The problem is, spring on Jupiter and Mars wouldn’t be very nice at all.
“Jupiter is a gas planet, so there’s no surface. You really just see it in terms of weather patterns, and it’s all atmosphere, basically. I mean, way, way down there’s some kind of solid stuff. But the temperatures and pressures are so high. Now, on Mars, if you go down to a really low altitude in the bottom of some of the deepest craters, it can just about get warm enough, and the pressure can get just high enough, for liquid water to temporarily exist on the surface. So it’s not quite as bad. But it’s not very nice.”
Bon Jovi – ‘Always’
“I’ll be there ’til the stars don’t shine…”
“Jon Bon Jovi makes some sense here. The longest-lived stars are called red dwarf stars. The smaller the star, the longer it lives, because it doesn’t have to burn its fuels so quickly. So red dwarf stars have lifetimes well over a trillion years. That’s way, way, way longer than the current age of the universe, right? So you can have stars that will still be shining in a trillion years’ time, but eventually there will be a last star. Stars have a finite life. Also, the number of new stars that are created ultimately falls because you get material locked away inside old stars, and black holes and so on. Star formation rates drop in galaxies, so ultimately, yeah, the stars will go out. But we’ve got over a trillion years to go”.
Ash – ‘Girl From Mars’
“Do you remember the time I knew a girl from Mars…”
“If there is life on Mars it’ll be single-celled, at best. So, in order to meet a girl from Mars you’d have to meet a girl who was born on Mars in a colony. That’s not beyond the realms of possibility at some point in the future, but as regards actual Martians that evolved from an origin of life on Mars, it would be single-celled and a long way from being a girl, or any gender.”
Sam Ryder – ‘Spaceman’
“Been down some black holes…”
“So Sam Ryder could, theoretically, go inside a black hole. If he fell into a big black hole, like the one in the centre of the Milky Way, nothing would happen to him at all. Until… according to Einstein, he faces the end of time. And that would happen in about a day. So he’d have a day, or slightly less, inside the black hole before time ends.
“What happens next is more interesting, and we talk about this in the live show. The current paradigm for black holes is that somehow, in a very convoluted way, all the information that is ‘you’ would ultimately end up back in the universe again. But it would all be scrambled up and encoded in what’s called Hawking radiation. So it wouldn’t be great for Sam. It would be the same thing if he dived into the sun – which is also the problem Katrina & The Waves would have in ‘Walking On Sunshine’. His whole being would be scrambled up and re-radiated out again. In some sense, though, he’d survive. In the same way the information in a book survives if you burn it.”
Say what now?
“If you set a book on fire and you collect everything that comes off of it, all the gas and all the ashes, and if you measured it all perfectly, then in principle, you could reconstruct the book. That’s conservation of information, which is thought to be fundamental in the universe. So if Sam Ryder jumped in a black hole and got scrambled, and if we collected all the Hawking radiation that ever came back out, and then put it in a giant quantum computer in the far future…. Then we could reconstruct him. In principle!”
The Prodigy – ‘Out Of Space’
“I’ll take your brains to another dimension…”
“It depends what Keith was talking about here. Because there are theories that there are more dimensions of space. And indeed, there are structures in those called ‘branes’, which are more like membranes, right? Mebranes and D-branes: there are all sorts of different branes. So maybe he was talking about the technicalities of string theory, quantum gravity and theoretical physics? Maybe he’s talking about ‘branes’, not ‘brains’?! I’m gonna give him the benefit of the doubt, because it’s The Prodigy!”
The Beatles – ‘All You Need Is Love’
“All you need is love…”
“Lennon and McCartney need to be more specific. They need to define what ‘love’ is. You could redefine love as all the particles and fields that make up the universe, for example. In the study of black holes we’re beginning to be led to this idea that the base level of reality is information, right? So ultimately, I would say… ‘all you need is information’.”