Chris Hadfield and BNL make a new world in orbit

CBC’s video player does not play nicely with WordPress for video embedding. So, click the space station below to play the video from CBC Music. We’ll wait right here for you to come back. Please come back…

I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing?)

On Friday, CBC premiered a song collaboration like no other. Astronaut and future space station commander Chris Hadfield grabbed a guitar while in orbit and played along with the Barenaked Ladies and a choir from Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts. Well, technically, he played along with a recording made earlier, and BNL and the choir played along with him. For a few reasons, I wasn’t expecting to love this. When I heard about the project, and then again when I saw the video on Friday, I didn’t pay too much attention to it. It seemed like a fun idea but one that wasn’t much deeper than Astronaut + beloved Canadian band + youth choir = Awwwww The other reason, is that as a long-time member of child and youth choirs, I’m still recovering from singing such other patriotic tunes as the Ont-ari-ari-ario song*, so there’s something about perfect-for-school-choirs projects like this that makes me a little uneasy.

The second time I watched it though, after catching the edge of the Earth in the window behind Hadfield, I rethought it. Singing live and recording from orbit with a band and choir on Earth is pretty cool. And it’s more than just a technical cool. There’s something bigger going on here. There’s something about this that contributes to a process that was started by Galileo. Yes, Galileo.

After experimenting with lenses for a year or so, Galileo published Sidereus Nuncius (The Sidereal Message, or Messenger) in March, 1610. It was the first book of its kind: a scientific treatise based on observations made with a telescope.

It opens with detailed descriptions and drawings of the surface of the moon, which he names using earth-like features. Shapes that appear to change are explained as shadows cast by mountains as the moon changes position relative to the sun, a familiar and everyday change on Earth. Even the simplifications he makes, such as drawing one large crater where there are several, is thought to be an effort to make it seem more like known Earth structures, such as the forested depression surrounding Bohemia. With these descriptions, Galileo was making a significant argument: that the heavens, both the objects and the processes that guided them, are no different than those here on Earth. He was proposing that the Milky Way wasn’t mysteriously separate and different from the sun, but a collection of innumerable and possibly similar stars. The work closes with a description of four of Jupiter’s moons visible through his telescope. By observing that they were in a different position each night, he pushed the argument further. Not only are these bodies no different in kind than the Earth, there were other systems  out there like the familiar Earth-moon system and, further, that the Earth itself is part of an even larger version: the Copernican solar system.

Sidereus Nuncius was not so much a treatise as an announcement: in a few brief words, and in sober language, it told the learned community that a new age had begun and that the universe and the way in which it was studied would never be the same.” wrote Albert Van Helden, in the preface to his 1989 English translation.

Throughout the book he draws analogies to processes and forms seen on Earth and describes them in rich detail. It’s that detail that makes it so readable and engaging even today, more than most other scientific documents of the time. The larger project of the book, though, was to turn the universe from something metaphysical to something physical, something that could be understood through observation and measurement. And he was using the Earth as a template to create in people’s minds, and his own, the possibility of this new type of universe.

It would be more than a little bit of hyperbole to say this song is the equivalent of Sidereus Nuncius. But I think it’s maybe a hint of things to come, the early stages of a process the takes Galileo’s argument, that the rest of the universe is of the same kind as the Earth, to its next conclusion: that it is of the same kind as the Earth because it is a place where humans live and interact. Like Nuncius, it uses the analogy of an everyday activity to say that human beings can be seamlessly connected across the border that separates Earth and off-the-Earth.

Hadfield, BNL and the choir are contributing to creating, in our minds, orbit as a place where human beings are and live. It’s something that astronauts have always done, showing glimpses of normal life while they’re in space. Here’s Hadfield playing guitar from Mir in 1995. But on this mission Hadfield has pushed this thinking strongly forward by using the tools that connect so many of us across long distances. He has tweeted photographs of our hometowns nightly, chatted with sci-fi icons, and dropped the opening puck in a Leafs game. By doing these things and recording this song he is not only doing human things in orbit, like astronauts have always done, he’s connected himself to human communities and popular culture in new ways and to an unprecedented degree. Anyone on Earth with internet access can be connected with him almost every day. And in doing so, I think he’s helping us make a world of the future, to start to imagine what humanity will be like when society is no longer bound to the Earth. The song is a subtle announcement of a new age. So, I rescind all of my earlier cynicism. Go watch the video and dream of a world to come.**

Further Reading

Galilei, G. (1989). Sidereus Nuncius, or The Sidereal Messenger. University of Chicago Press.

Lambert, L. B. (2002). Imagining the unimaginable: The poetics of early modern astronomy (Vol. 58). Rodopi.

Winkler, M. G., & Van Helden, A. (1992). Representing the heavens: Galileo and visual astronomy. Isis. Journal of the History of Science Society, 83, 195-217.


*I might even have to change my view of that one too. Thanks to the YouTube comments I learned that the song and video won the 1967 Academy Award for Live Action Short Film (“Short Subjects, Live Action Subjects” as it was called at the time) and is considered a pioneer in using split screen video, something used to great effect by artistic descendants like Run Lola Run and 24. (Also, no, I wasn’t alive in 1967 but the song was so enthusiastically received by choir directors that we were still singing it decades later.)

**Easy there, cheeseball.

Author: mcshanahan

Science education researcher and writer

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