|Single by Monty Python|
|from the album Monty Python's The Meaning of Life|
|Label||CBS / MCA|
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 was featured in the live stage show Monty Python Live (mostly).
Premise and synopsis
The song originally debuted during the comedy sketch "Live Organ Transplants". The paramedic (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 suit (Eric Idle). The man accompanies Mrs. Brown through outer space singing various statistics about the galaxy. The upshot of the song (which follows a synthesized instrumental montage that, in the movie, is accompanied by a computer-animated picture of a woman being impregnated) is that in the grand scheme of the universe, the likelihood of Mrs. Brown's existence was almost zero, but that she should "pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space, 'cause there's bugger all down here on Earth." The singer returns to the refrigerator, at which point Mrs. Brown admits that the singer convinced her to hand over her liver.
Accuracy of astronomical figures
The lyrics include a number of astronomical facts and figures, which may have accurately reflected the known values at the time the song was written. Some of these have changed as improved technology has allowed scientists 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” so the songwriters may have used artistic license. The current estimate for the rotational speed at the equator is 1040 miles/hr (1670 kilometers/hour). 900 miles is correct if this is given in nautical miles, but it is more common to speak of knots in this case. 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 methods 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. The three other power sources are available 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. This is “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. The song 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 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 was later confused by Idle’s performance of the song in his Not the Messiah show (2007) 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. “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 last verse of the song explains that the universe is expanding, and furthermore, that the speed of light is the “fastest speed there is”. Idle’s estimate of the speed of light is a relatively accurate 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 2014, the song was performed in the stage show Monty Python Live (mostly). Idle emerges from a refrigerator and begins singing to an elderly woman (Carol Cleveland). At one point, they start dancing on stage as a clip shows them dancing among the stars with the galaxy in the background. After the song ends, the show cuts to a clip of Cox at Cambridge discussing the various scientific inaccuracies within the song. He is knocked over by Stephen Hawking going by in his motorized chair. Hawking tells Cox not to be so pedantic, and then starts to sing the song himself. During September 2014, Hawking's cover for the song was released as a single.
In December 2016, the theme of the song was extended into the hour-long BBC Two The Entire Universe show. Written and co-presented by Idle and Professor Brian Cox, it took the form of a lecture by Cox interspersed with a "comedy and musical extravaganza with the help of Warwick Davis, Noel Fielding, Hannah Waddingham and Robin Ince, alongside a chorus of singers and dancers." The show closed with an ensemble rendition of "The Galaxy Song" with updated figures: the galaxy containing 500,000 stars instead of 100,000; the galaxy rotation speed of 500,000 mph instead of 40,000; the galaxy thickness as 6,000ly instead of 16,000, and a spiral arm thickness of 1,000ly instead of 3,000.
- Monty Python Sings CD booklet. 1989 Virgin Records
- Kohlmiller, Paul (December 2003). "A study of the Galaxy Song by Eric Idle". Ephemeris. San Jose Astronomical Association.
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- "What is Earth's mean orbital speed?". WhatIs.com.
- Pool, Jerry. "Earth's Speed". AOL. Archived from the original on 19 September 2003.
- "The Speed of Light". University of Virginia.
- Elert, Glenn. "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". earthtimes.org.
- on YouTube
- Wood, John Alex (4 August 2008). "6 or 16 thousand light years thick?". pythonline.com. Archived from the original on 15 August 2008.
- "speed of light". everything2.com.
- on YouTube
- Idle, Eric (29 October 2012). "Eric Idle on 'Galaxy Song,' the New Biological Version". The Nerdist.
- "The Entire Universe". bbc.co.uk. 26 December 2017. Retrieved 27 December 2016.