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Special Relativity in Rock Music
http://www.scribd.com/doc/20245751/39
David S. LatchmanSeptember 30, 2009
1 Introduction
The song “’39” by the rock band Queen, written and sung by Brian May on the album A Night at theOpera, is the 39
th
1
. A man leaves his hometown and has lots of travels andthen comes back and observes his hometown from the other side of the river. He sees it in adiﬀerent light, having been away and experienced all those diﬀerent things. He sees it in avery illuminating way, ‘cause I felt a little bit like that about my home at the time as well,having been away and seen this vastly diﬀerent world of rock music... totally diﬀerent fromthe way I was brought up, and I had those feelings about home.”This pretty much kills the history theme debate.So we know now that “’39” is a science-ﬁction story that deals with the special relativistic eﬀect of
time dilation
. Simply put, as objects approach the speed of light, time slows down, or is dilated, andthis is the crux of the story. We can also treat the song as a Physics problem and ask ourselves, howfast were the Volunteers traveling?
2 The Song
Brian has, more or less, told us how to solve the problem in the Tobler and Grundy interview but, asPhysicists, we will look for clues in the song to solve this question ourselves. Plus, just plugging the
1
In the interview Brian says ‘The River’ but he is incorrect. The story that he is referring to is ‘The Poet’ and is foundin the short story collection ‘Strange News From Another Star’ by the same author.
1

values into an equation will be cheating and we won’t appreciate the poetry of the music. To start with,we look at the Time Dilation equation, which is
t
=
t

1
v
2
c
2
(1)where ∆
t
is the time experience by people on Earth and ∆
t
is the time experienced by the movingtravelers.
v
and
c
are the speed at which the Volunteers are traveling and the speed of light respectfully.So as
v
increases the traveler’s clock moves slower than a person’s clock on Earth.Before we go plugging numbers into eq. (1), we should listen to the song. If for some unfortunatereason you are unable to do so, the song’s lyrics are as follows
In the year of ’39 assembled here the Volunteers
1
In the days when the lands were few
2
Here the ship sailed out into the blue and sunny morn
3
The sweetest sight ever seen.
45
And the night followed day
6
And the story tellers say
7
That the score brave souls inside
8
For many a lonely day sailed across the milky seas
9
Ne’er looked back, never feared, never cried.
1011
Don’t you hear my call though you’re many years away
12
Don’t you hear me calling you
13
Write your letters in the sand
14
For the day I take your hand
15
In the land that our grandchildren knew.
1617
In the year of ’39 came a ship in from the blue
18
The Volunteers came home that day
19
And they bring good news of a world so newly born
20
Though their hearts so heavily weigh
21
For the earth is old and grey, little darlin’ we’ll away
22
But my love this cannot be
23
For so many years have gone though I’m older but a year
24
2526
Don’t you hear my call though you’re many years away
27
Don’t you hear me calling you
28
Write your letters in the sand
29
For the day I take your hand
30
In the land that our grandchildren knew.
3132
Don’t you hear my call though you’re many years away
33
Don’t you hear me calling you
34
All your letters in the sand cannot heal me like your hand
3536
For my life
37
38
Pity Me.
39
Now we can begin our analysis and solve this problem. Lines 1 and 18 read
In the year of ’39 assembled here the Volunteers...In the year of ’39 came a ship in from the blue
2
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Notes