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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Galactic thoughts

And now for something completely different...

This morning's commuting podcast was a download from the BBC that I listen to each week -- Melvynn Bragg's In Our Time. This is perhaps the most unique -- and literally surprising -- show on BBC Radio 4. Broadcast each Thursday, it is an hour of discussion about some topic that happens to be of interest to Bragg that particular week. One week it is Negative Numbers, the next week it is The Spanish Inquisition, and the next it might be Carbon, or Uncle Tom's Cabin -- you never know what you are going to hear about, and those are just a sampling of very recent broadcasts!

What Bragg does is invite three academic experts from the UK to answer his questions -- the kind of questions any layperson might ask over coffee if in such a position. Some weeks it is fascinating, other weeks it is just plain bizarre...

They have been podcasting this each week for a bit, and while the podcasts are replaced each week, it is still possible to listen to many of the past shows posted in their archives.

The June 29 show, which I listened to this morning, was about Galaxies, and within a few minutes of listening to the three experts attempt to explain the size and dimensions of the universe of galaxies, I was immediately flashing back to Monty Python's movie, The Meaning of Life, and specifically to the very memorable "Galaxy Song". This is a Python classic, and the lyrics of all the songs are terrific! If you have never heard the Galaxy Song, you can play it by clicking here (mp3) or here (Realplayer), and although I know it is some violation of copyright, here are the lyrics:

[Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown,
And things seem hard or tough,
And people are stupid, obnoxious or daft,
And you feel that you've had quite eno-o-o-o-o-ough...]

Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour,
That's orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it's reckoned,
A sun that is the source of all our power.
The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see
Are moving at a million miles a day
In an outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour,
Of the galaxy we call the "Milky Way".

Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars.
It's a hundred thousand light years side to side.
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick,
But out by us, it's just three thousand light years wide.
We're thirty thousand light years from galactic central point.
We go 'round every two hundred million years,
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe.

(Animated calliope interlude)

The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
In all of the directions it can whizz
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute, and that's the fastest speed there is.
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth.

There are a couple of sites that provide annotations for the lyrics (here and here), but to really get a sense of it you have to listen to Braggs' hour of chat.

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