Science + Pop Culture, writing

The Science of Eurovision 2021

After an unfortunate hiatus, the 65th Eurovision Song Content (ESC) has returned. This time, in Rotterdam. All 39 participating countries submitted their songs a while back (available for viewing/listening on the ESC’s official YouTube channel) but I’ve only gotten around to this post just now. #PhDLife

I’m going to keep doing science tangents on their lyrics until I get bored or someone pays me to stop.

The Songs, or at least 9 of them…

Belgium

  • The Wrong Place – Hooverphonic
  • Lyrics: “You get up cause you need an organic cup of tea”
  • Science Tangent: That pesky term “organic”
    • For anyone who has yet to take a chemistry class, or has forgotten everything they learned from their chemistry class, scientists have a very different definition of “organic” than the colloquial (or the USDA regulated) which refers to a method of cultivation/production for agricultural products.
    • Organic compounds are molecules based around carbon atoms. The simplest organic compound is methane — a single carbon atoms bonded to 4 hydrogen atoms. Now, methane can be produced both by living creatures (For example, the reason why cattle/dairy farming contributes so much to climate change is because cows burp — not fart — methane gas, which is very good at trapping heat while it’s hanging out in our atmosphere) and by abiotic chemical reactions (For example, when certain minerals get broken down by water into new ones plus methane — this is why the evidence of methane on Mars is not proof of aliens).
    • In other words, even though life on Earth is carbon-based, which means we (and tea) are chock full of organic molecules, the term “organic” can also refer to molecules that have nothing to do with life. Weird.
    • So in the end, from a science perspective, all tea leaves are organic.
    • (As an aside, not all carbon-bearing molecules are organic, even ones produced by living things. Carbon dioxide is not organic, despite being exhaled by your lungs. This all comes down to the simple but annoying fact that reality doesn’t like to fit into the boxes humans like to impose upon it for categorization purposes.)

      Also, with respect to the “organic” label on foodstuffs tending to exclude anything made by so-called genetic modification: just like basically all the other plants humans cultivate for consumption, tea bushes (fancy science name Camellia sinensis) are GMOs — selectively bred over 1000+ years to increase caffeine content, make the leaves taste better, grow better in specific climates, and so on. However, it’s super hard to study how much they were changed from their wild ancestors because…we can’t find any.

Bulgaria

  • Growing Up is Getting Old – VICTORIA
  • Lyrics: “Maybe I could tread the waters of time”
  • Science Tangent: How to stop time
    • That Albert Einstein guy was a pretty smart cookie, what with his revolutionizing of physics and all that. I mean, he didn’t get everything right (see: his distaste for quantum mechanics and his inability to arrive at a Theory of Everything) but he did turn gravity on its proverbial head and unite space and time into…the very creatively named spacetime.
    • Spacetime is 4-dimensional (as far as we can tell), basically combining the 3 spatial dimensions and time into a singular entity. And as Einstein stipulated and real-world experiments continue to support, there is a fundamental speed limit to travel through spacetime: 299,792,458 meters per second. You’ll often see that abbreviated as c…or c0 when c is used for when photons of light happen to be traveling slower than the fundamental speed limit (It happens more regularly than you might think).
    • (If you’re wondering if that number should have some error bars for uncertainty in measurement, the answer is no. It’s exactly that fast, because scientists decided to redefine the length of the meter to be based on the speed of light in a vacuum.)
    • In other words, the faster and faster you travel through the 3 dimensions of space, the less you are allowed to travel through the dimension of time (i.e., you age more slowly with respect to someone traveling slower than you). Traveling at exactly c through space leaves you unable to move through time.
    • So that’s how you make time stand perfectly still…except for the fact that anything made of any amount of matter (i.e., has “mass”) can never travel at c because it takes progressively more and more energy to speed you up…up to an infinite amount of energy to accelerate to c.
    • Photons of light have no mass, and can’t travel faster than c, but they can be slowed down by traveling through stuff (e.g. air). So it’s easier to travel faster than light than it is to stop time.

Denmark

  • Øve Os På Hinanden – Fyr Og Flamme
  • Lyrics: “Tiden er gået i stå / Din kjole er lyseblå” (According to Google Translate, that’s “Time has come to a standstill / Your dress is light blue”)
  • Science Tangent 1: How to stop time
    • Apparently this is a common theme in song lyrics…
  • Science Tangent 2: How the brain perceives color
    • The typical human eyeball comes equipped with two kinds of light-detecting (i.e. photoreceptor) cells: rods and cones. While rods detect “color” (they’re best at blue/green light), it’s the possession of cones that allows you to distinguish one hue from another and actually give you color vision. You’ve got about 6ish million cones lining the inside each of your eyes, concentrated in a tiny spot straight back from the hole made by the pupil (called the fovea centralis).
    • But a cone cell can’t actually detect a photon’s exact color when it hits it. Instead, a special kind of light sensitive molecule will change shape when it absorbs specific wavelengths of light (which correspond to specific energies). This shape change gets translated down the cone into a simple message, “I’ve fired! (and need to be reshaped before I can detect light again…)”. Humans have three types of cones (called S, M, and L), with three different pigment molecules sensitive to different wavelengths.
      • Fun fact: only about 2% of your cones are the “S” variety, and are located outside of the fovea. This is one of two reasons why we have a harder time perceiving blue objects in focus — the other is due to the wavelength being so much shorter than red/green that when those are in focus blue isn’t (a phenomenon called “chromatic aberration”)
    • There is also some overlap between the colors human cones cover (and a surprisingly large amount of overlap for the M and L cones):

Image Credit: Maxim Razin, CC BY-SA 3.0
The dashed R curve is for the pigment in human rod cells. Notice how the “red” cone actually best detects light that’s greenish yellow (i.e. it’s only good at detecting red light relative to the other cones we have).
  • (cont’d)
    • The bottom of each cone has a chemical connection (a synapse) with a neuron, which can then deliver the “I’ve fired” signal out of the eye via the optic nerve out the back of the eyeball (making there a small spot in the back where there are no rods/cones at all, hence the phenomenon known as the “blind spot“). The signal eventually finds itself in a part of the occipital lobe — that’s the back part of your brain — called the primary visual cortex.
    • Now what does your brain do with all that data? Basically, because any given cone can either fire or not (i.e. it can’t tell your brain the exact color of light it observed), your brain has learned to associate the total difference in responses between your three cone types (checking out the same point in space) as a given hue. An object is perceived as red when a lot of L cones fire but not many M ones (or S ones) do. It’s perceived as yellow when the Ls are still firing more than the Ms are, but the difference isn’t quite as great. Et cetera.
    • This is also why we can perceive the color pink (which on the color wheel exists between red and violet) despite there not actually being a pink photon (the electromagnetic spectrum is an infinitely long line of which a tiny segment runs from red to violet). Your brain has just decided that a certain ratio of S, M, and L cones firing equals pink. In a way, every single color is an invention of your brain, and what you call a light blue dress might not be quite the same for me.
    • But debates on dress color are for another time (specifically 2015).

Finland

  • Dark Side – Blind Channel
  • Lyrics: “Don’t wanna cry so I gotta get paralyzed”
  • Science Tangent: Tear production
    • We generally think of tears as being produced only when you’re sad (slash stressed slash you smashed your shin into the leg of a table, etc.) but humans actually produce tears constantly. They lubricate the surface of your eyeballs and help protect them from dust and other irritants, but also help to focus light coming in (This is because light rays bend when they encounter a substance made from a new material, like going from air to water; tears also have an oily layer to keep the film of tear fluid covering your eye from drying out too quickly, and a mucus layer to help it actually stick to the eye).
    • In other words, a complete lack of tears can lead to health complications like eye infections and even ulcers! The American Academy of Opthamology estimates an average person (tear production wanes as you age) produces between 15 and 30 gallons (that’s ~57 and 114 liters) a year.
    • Basal tears — that is, the ones generated round the clock — are produced in small enough amounts that they easily drain through tiny holes called puncta, found in the corners of your eyelids, into your nose to either evaporate or slide down your throat. But reflex tears (e.g. from chopping my greatest delicious nemesis, onions) or emotional tears often overwhelm this drainage system, so they spill down your face or out your nose.
    • Emotional tears, which are presumably the ones referenced in the lyrics, are produced when your brain’s limbic system (associated with emotional arousal, which does not just mean the sexual kind) sends a message via the pons (part of the brainstem) to the lacrimal system — that’s the bit that actually makes the tears.
    • Damage to the nerves in the pons can eventually lead to near total paralysis…however, tears are controlled via a different part of the nervous system than what people use to move around (i.e. not be paralyzed). That is, the autonomic nervous system, as opposed to the somatic nervous system, which involves all the stuff you have control over. So even if you were completely locked-in (i.e. no control over your body at all), you could still produce tears.
    • There is a rare variant of the disorder Guillain-Barre syndrome (wherein your immune system attacks your own nerves to the point of paralysis) called acute panautonomic neuropathy, which can — along with many other side effects — decrease tear production.
    • But basically, it is very difficult to stop your body from making tears, even when you can’t voluntarily move.
    • The research is still coming in, but emotional tears can be good for you. They often appear to have different hormones inside them than basal tears do, suggesting they might have soothing or pain relief effects, like getting rid of excess stress hormones.
    • The best way to stop crying is become a newborn baby, whose lacrimal glads aren’t fully developed…and that’s why they can scream for hours without shedding a single tear.
Image Credit: Erin_Silversmith, CC BY-SA 2.5

Georgia

  • You – Tornike Kipiani
  • Lyrics: “Sunshine, I wanna touch you.”
  • Science Tangent: Please do not try to touch the Sun
    • If you define touching as exerting a force on another object, sunlight actually can touch you. Photons of light exert a teeny tiny amount of pressure (which is why solar sails are a real thing and not just a steampunk creation for science fiction novels). So, obeying Newton’s 3rd law of motion, the force (pressure times area over which pushing is done) of sunlight on you is equal to your force exerted on sunshine.
      • Note that sunlight is not made of matter, so you’d be hard-pressed (pun not intended) to find someone who thought you were actually touching anything.
    • When light hits you, it can either be reflected or absorbed by your body — some of it even travels through your skin a tiny bit before it bounces back out, and that’s why everyone and their blind grandmother can see my very prominent arm veins when I deign to wear short sleeves. This is also why veins only look blue until you slice through too many layers of skin and deep red blood leaks out. Or, you know, the nurse pulls it out of you without giving you a piece of candy because you’re an *adult*, now. Wait, I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent, here…just like my mind does when this song comes on.
    • At ~150 million kilometers (93 million miles) from the Sun, the amount of pressure sunlight exerts is about 9 microPascals. That’s like trying to distribute the weight of an eyelash across the entire surface of a human body.
    • Sunlight is more concentrated the closer you get to the Sun (because it has less time to spread out into all directions of space), so you’d feel a bigger push the closer you get…which is ill-advised at best, as long term exposures to sunlight right here heat things up above the boiling point of water. For example, the surface of the ISS during the day reaches 121 °C, but obviously we have ways of preventing that from creeping inside.
    • Inside a typical NASA space suit you could get about 95% of the way to the Sun (3 million miles, ~4.8 million km) before you began to overheat. But over the course of the journey, you’d only make it about halfway before dying from the constant exposure to radiation.
Image Credit: NASA (Concept Art)

Israel

  • Set Me Free – Eden Alene
  • Lyrics: “Set the place on fire 2021 degrees”
  • Science Tangent: Is that Celsius or Fahrenheit?
    • 2021 °F = 1105 °C (for reference, the melting point of copper is 1984 °F, so this scenario gives us Bronze Age smelting abilities)
    • 2021 °C = 3670 °F (That’s hot enough to melt all but a dozen naturally-occurring elements on the periodic table, but still well under half the temperature of the surface of the Sun (~5500 °C))
    • Meanwhile, the temperature of a fire depends on the fuel you’re burning — how much energy is being released as you’re breaking molecular bonds and forming new ones — as well as how much oxygen gas is combusting that fuel (more O2 = higher temp). Propane, for example, burns at 1950 °C in air, but in pure oxygen it’s all the way up at 2800 °C.
    • The 2021 °F is closer to what you’d get out of a candle or a charcoal fire (and the end result of a wood-based bonfire after the wood has turned into a combination of charcoal and ash), but this is Israel we’re talking about, not the US.
    • At the very least, we can say it’s not Kelvin, which does not have degrees. But for completion’s sake, 2021 Kelvin is 1748 °C.
    • Fun fact(s): the original centigrade scale developed by Anders Celsius ran backwards, where liquid water boiled at 0 and snow melted at 100. It was swapped one year later, in 1743. Also, it wasn’t called Celsius as a scale until 1948.
      • At the same conference that did that, the scale was no longer defined based on where water froze/boiled, but tied it (and Kelvin) to the triple point of water — that is, the exact temperature and pressure situation where water simultaneously exists as a solid, liquid, and gas. That triple point was 0.01 °C and atm.
      • However, in 2019, both temperatures scales were decoupled from water entirely, and defined based on this fancy number called the Boltzmann constant, which relates the kinetic energy of a gas to its temperature (said constant was redefined as an exact number just like the speed of light was, which as mentioned above changed the definition of the meter).

Latvia

  • The Moon is Rising – Samanta Tina
  • Lyrics: “The blood moon is rising”
  • Science Tangent: What’s a blood moon?
    • In addition to the various phases the Moon goes through (new moon, waxing/waning crescent/gibbous, full moon, and the 1st and 3rd quarters), there are “special” types of full moon depending on what it looks like.
    • For example, a Blue Moon is just the second full moon in a calendar month. It has nothing to do with the color. Because a lunar month is 28ish days, we get a blue moon every two and a half years or so. The n+1 names you may have heard (e.g. Harvest Moon) are just based on when in the year it is and how it’s associated with seasonal activities/growth.
    • Blood Moons occur during a lunar eclipse, when the Earth blocks almost all the Sun’s light from hitting the Moon. The only light that hits the Moon is the stuff that glances the Earth by traveling through its (astronomically speaking) very thin atmosphere. Red light makes it through the most because it’s scattered least by the molecules in our air, so that’s what goes on to hit the Moon, and then bounce back to Earth so we can see it.
    • NASA acknowledges people will also call it a blood moon when there’s so much dust/haze in the air that the Moon looks red, or just when it’s autumn and leaves turn red, but those are way less cool.
    • Here is what a Blood Moon looks like when you try to take a picture of it by holding your smartphone up to the eyepiece of your childhood backyard telescope:
The January 20, 2019 lunar eclipse, as seen from the suburbs of Kansas

meanwhile…

Here’s a 2014 eclipse (and a photobomb from Uranus in the lower left), taken by someone with a lot more money and free time than I’ve got. Photo Credit: Neal Herbert

Sweden

  • Voices – Tusse
  • Lyrics: “Don’t let them hold you down / Go shooting like a star / The star you are”
  • Science Tangent: Shooting stars aren’t
    • Stars are giant balls of plasma that only appear to streak through the night sky if you leave your camera on for a very long time as the Earth rotates (the exposure below is only 18 minutes)
Photo Credit: Joe ParksCC BY-NC 2.0
  • (cont’d)
    • That being said, our solar system and every other is orbiting around the Milky Way, and stars further from the center don’t orbit at the same rate as those closer in (their exact velocities are one piece of evidence of dark matter). We are, for example, going around at speeds in excess of 800,000 kph…which may just be fast enough to apply the verb “shooting” if you’re an alien sitting back and watching the show from a different reference frame.
    • But what we call “shooting stars” are just hunks of rocky and/or icy debris leftover from the formation of our solar system — sometimes bits that have been knocked off of a larger bit like an asteroid, or shed from a larger bit like a comet — that are unlucky enough to travel through our atmosphere.
    • The heat generated by both friction and compression of air while careening through it vaporizes most small space rocks, preventing them from hitting the ground at all. A recent study estimated that 5200 metric tons (1 metric ton 1000 kg, or ~2200 lbs) of space dust rains down on Earth a year.
    • Gravity — the phenomenon that actually does hold us down — is the main reason why these shooting stars (aka meteors) hit Earth at all. They fall down towards our planet (I don’t want to say they’re pulled down to us, because that’s an out of date, Newtonian, perception of gravity, where the more modern analogy is deformations in a bedsheet with a bunch of balls rolling around it) as it spins around the Sun. And that orbit Earth has around the Sun is created by the Sun’s gravity, too.
      • Our orbit also takes us regularly through patches of dust to give us seasonal meteor showers (e.g. the Leonids or Geminids). This dust is often shed by comets as they make their own gravity-inducing orbits around the Sun.

Switzerland

  • Tout l’univers – Gjon’s Tears
  • Science Tangent: The “whole” universe
    • Ignoring the hypothetical concept of the multiverse, the “universe” is generally considered to be all there is out there in the wild black (or, technically, Cosmic Latte) yonder. And you may have heard that the universe is infinite, which would make the concept of the “whole universe” a bit difficult to wrap your head around. But lucky for you, when cosmologists say “the universe”, they’re only referring to a finite subsection of it — the part we can see.
    • Because light does not travel instantaneously, the furthest we can see from Earth is equal to the speed of light times the age of the universe (~13.8 billion years), adjusted for the amount of distance those light sources have moved away from us in the intervening years, at ever increasing speeds for the last few billion years or so due to that pesky (i.e. the current biggest problem in cosmology) dark energy’s influence. That distance is about 46 billion light years, which makes the observable universe a sphere that stretches ~92 billion light years from one end to the other.
      • nb: these distances require knowing how fast stuff how far away is moving away from us, which has some amount of uncertainty (including a discrepancy between measurement systems) so are really best guesses.
    • Assuming dark energy’s influence stays constant, the biggest the observable universe will get is about 124 billion light years in diameter. This is because the further away a galaxy is from us, the faster it’s moving away, so there is a proverbial line where light beyond it will never ever reach Earth so matter how much time it takes to try and get here — Earth and the Milky Way are continuing to move the goal post.
      • (In 2005, this line was 16 billion light years, which you’ll note is well inside the current boundary. This means that new light starting out >16 will never reach Earth, but we can still see some of the older stuff.)
    • However, there technically is a way to see something from beyond this bubble we find ourselves in. It just requires humanity to find a way to travel faster than light, far enough from the Milky Way…to a distant galaxy whose own observable universe will be the exact same size as ours, but only overlap part of ours and thereby uncover new features.
    • Yes, this technically does mean that my observable universe is different than yours…ever so slightly…because we do not occupy the same point in spacetime.
    • Based on structures in the observable universe’s “baby photo”, aka the cosmic microwave background (see below), astronomers have calculated that if the universe isn’t perfectly flat and therefore infinitely big, it cannot currently be smaller than 23 trillion light years in diameter — 250 times bigger than the observable universe.
      • There is a possibility that the size of the whole universe is actually smaller than the observable universe. This would require the universe to have a different shape than scientists currently think it does, and creates the illusion of a larger size by duplicating images — light from a galaxy goes all the way around the universe and pops up in another part of the sky.
    • As time moves on, the accelerating expansion of space between galaxies (which can actually be faster than the speed of light, because space itself is free to expand without a speed limit) will also mean that our observable universe will start to lose its most distant galaxies. They’ll first appear to stop changing, then grow progressively redder and redder, and fainter and fainter.
    • Our universe will get smaller and smaller, as the void grows bigger and bigger. It’s great to end on a happy note.
The CMB as seen by the Planck Telescope (and edited to display teeny tiny contrasts in temperature)
Image Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration
Image Credit: Pablo Carlos Budassi, CC BY-SA 4.0
“Logarithmic map of the observable universe. From left to right, spacecraft and celestial bodies are arranged according to their proximity to the Earth.” (sizes of objects not to scale)
Click the link to actually see what’s going on.

Now let’s all celebrate with some Jaja Ding Dong!