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"Galaxy Song" is a Monty Python song that was written by Eric Idle who composed it with John Du Prez. The song first appeared in the 1983 film Monty Python's The Meaning of Life and was later released on the album Monty Python Sings. In 2014 the song featured in the live stage show Monty Python Live (Mostly).
The song originally appeared during the sketch "Live Organ Transplants". The surgeon (John Cleese), upon failing to persuade Mrs. Brown (Terry Jones) to donate her liver, opens the refrigerator doors to reveal a man wearing a pink morning dress (Idle) who accompanies her through outer space singing about the universe. This prompts Mrs. Brown to agree to the surgeon's proposal.
Accuracy of astronomical figures
The lyrics include a number of astronomical facts and figures, which accurately reflected the known values at the time the song was written but which have changed as improved technology has allowed us to make more accurate measurements.
- Idle sings that the Earth is "revolving at nine hundred miles an hour". He is using the wrong term, since the Earth revolves around the Sun, but it rotates on its axis; however, "rotating" does not rhyme with "evolving". The current estimate for the rotational speed at the equator is 1040 miles/hr (1670 kilometers/hour). 900 miles is correct given that it is nautical miles, but it's more common to speak of knots. He gives the Earth's orbital speed as 19 miles (31 km) per second, compared with the real figure of 18 to 18.5.
- Idle states that the Sun is "the source of all our power". In fact, three notable sources of electrical power are not directly traceable to the Sun: The first is geothermal power, which is derived from geothermal energy, 20% of which remains from the original planet formation and 80% of which is derived from ongoing radioactive decay. The second source is the Moon's effects on tides and the associated method of power generation. The third is nuclear power derived from uranium and other fissile elements. Ultimately, however, the overwhelming proportion of human-generated power derived from fossil fuels and thence from photosynthetic plants makes this line a very good approximation to the truth. Even the first three power sources, however, are available only because of the Sun's influence on our early solar system, so Idle's statement is correct in a literal (if somewhat pedantic) sense even if not for practical purposes.
- Idle's figures for the size of the Milky Way galaxy are roughly correct. He understates the speed at which the Sun orbits the "galactic central point", but he gives a good estimate for the total time per orbit ("two hundred million years" according to the song, compared with accepted figures of 220 to 250 million years).
- The song says that we are "thirty thousand light years from galactic central point". In fact, the Sun is more like 25,000 light years from the centre of the Milky Way. It also states that the galaxy is "a hundred thousand light years side to side". This would make the galactic radius 50,000 light years, which is accurate. Australian astrophysicist Bryan Gaensler has even stated that Idle's estimation of the thickness of the Milky Way, at 16,000 light years, is more accurate than the official 'textbook' figure of 6,000 light years. However, the song's position on this has now been confused by Idle's recent performance of the song which forms part of his Not the Messiah show where the figure he sings is only 6,000 light years. The reason for the confusion has since been explained in a message from Idle on the official Monty Python website, Pythonline.com:"...There was some smug website pulling apart all my original figures for the song (written circa 1981) so for the 2003 Tour (or maybe 2000) I "updated" them. Now you tell me I was right all along! Not sure where I got my figures originally but tell the bastards to make up their minds."
- The ultimate verse explains that the universe is expanding, and furthermore that the speed of light is the "fastest speed there is". Idle's estimate is a good one: 12 million miles per minute, versus the standard figure of about 11.16 million miles per minute. (11 million would be a closer estimate, but Idle may have chosen 12 simply because the word 11 would not scan so well.)
In late 2012, an updated version of "The Galaxy Song" aired on BBC Two in a trailer for Wonders of Life, hosted by Prof. Brian Cox. It was called "The Galaxy DNA Song" by Idle, according to his 29 October 2012 article at The Nerdist.
In Monty Python Live (Mostly), after the song has concluded, the show cuts to a clip of Brian Cox at Cambridge discussing the various scientific inaccuracies with the song before he is knocked over by Stephen Hawking going by in his chair, who tells Brian not to be so pedantic as he starts singing the song himself.
- Monty Python Sings CD booklet. 1989 Virgin Records
- A study of the Galaxy Song by Eric Idle, Paul Kohlmiller, San Jose Astronomical Association Ephemeris, December 2003.
- NASA - Ask the Space Scientist
- What is Earth's mean orbital speed? – a definition from Whatis.com
- Earth's Speed, Jerry Pool's amateur astronomy website
- The Speed of Light, University of Virginia
- Period of the Sun's Orbit around the Galaxy (Cosmic Year), HyperTextbook.com
- Ready Reference, JustForKidsOnly.com
- Milky Way Galaxy, University of Oregon
- Milky Way twice as thick as thought, The Earth Times, 20 February 2008
- Eric Idle Galaxy Song from Not The Messiah finale at Hollywood Bowl 8-2-08 on YouTube
- 6 or 16 thousand light years thick?
- speed of light@Everything2.com
- The Galaxy DNA Song on YouTube