The Physics of Rush

Articles | Jan 1st, 2010

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My favorite band of all time is none other than Canadian power rock trio Rush. Not only do they play thinking man’s hard rock to a state of perfection, but they’ve also written lots of songs about time travel:

Cygnus X-1 (A Farewell To Kings) & Cygnus X-1 Book II (Hemispheres)
In our Milky Way galaxy, there is a dark space that is emitting an abundance of X Rays. Stephen Hawking believes that this dark space, called Cygnus X-1 is, in fact, a black hole, a star whose mass collapsed under its own gravitation into a speck of infinitely small size with infinitely large mass, whose gravity is so strong that light can not escape. Rush, showing extraordinary insight, penned this song to illustrate what would happen if an astronaut came too close to a black hole: “All who dare / To cross her course / Are swallowed by / A fearsome force / Through the void / To be destroyed.” Curious that there might be something besides destruction at the core of the black hole, the unlucky astronaut pilots his ship (named Rocinante, a nod to Don Quixote’s horse) “headlong into mystery.” Of course, when you approach the event horizon of a black hole, your atoms get stretched toward the gravitation, such that before all of your atoms are ripped apart, you and your ship would look like spaghetti: “Spinning, whirling / Still descending / Like a spiral sea / Unending / Sound and fury / Drowns my heart / Every nerve / Is torn apart…” The link to time travel is that the only way to escape from the event horizon is to travel faster than light. While the poor Rocinante didn’t succeed, it did somehow miraculously find its way to a land where heart and reason were divided into “Hemispheres.” Stuck forever in “that timeless space / To this immortal place,” it plays a role in bringing balance.

Natural Science (Permanent Waves)
One of the last epics by Rush is also one of the most thoughtful. The first section (“Tide Pools”) is about how we get so lost in the minutiae of our lives that we fail to see the bigger picture. However, the imagery used to convey this goes with our theme: A tide retreats, forming small pools of water, within which a whole microcosm of little creatures exists, going on with their life while forgetting of the sea they originally came from. The metaphor between the very, very small (subatomic level) and the very, very large (galaxies, the universe) is very intelligent, as this same metaphor is used when trying to combine quantum mechanics and relativity. A great stanza follows: “Wheels within wheels / In a spiral array / A pattern so grand / And complex / Time after time / We lose sight of the way / Our causes can’t see / Their effects.” Rush is using the complexity of the science of nature to describe our own shambling through life. The second part (“Hyperspace”) takes us into a future (or cynical present), where humankind has really lost their rhythm in the universe and distances itself from nature: “In their own image / Their world is fashioned / No wonder they don’t understand.” Another great stanza that again correlates with our theme is: “A quantum leap forward / In time and space / The universe learned to expand.” But Rush is hopeful; the third part (“Permanent Waves”) suggests that humankind will rediscover its integrity, honesty, and sensitivity, and will once again be part of the flow that is the waves of the universe.

Time Stand Still (Hold Your Fire)
One great quirk about Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is his time dilation formula. As one approaches the speed of light, the traveler’s clock slows down. Let’s see why: Say you have two mirrors lying parallel to each other. The time (t’) it would take a photon (a light particle) to bounce from one mirror to another and then return would be the distance (d) between the mirrors times two (since it has to return), divided by the speed of light (c). Or: t’ = 2d/c. However, if the parallel mirrors are moving in a direction, as the mirrors speed up, the photon is no longer bouncing up and down in a straight line; it is bouncing slightly diagonally. Therefore, with the addition of velocity (v), it would take more time for the photon to bounce and return than if it was stationary. The formula then looks like: t = t’ / ( v 1- (v/c), or the time for us to observe the photon bouncing back and forth is equal to the time it takes to bounce when stationary, divided by the square root of the squared velocity when divided by the speed of light, minus one. If you look closely at the equation, you realize a few things. First, if velocity is 0, then t = t’ divided by 1. In other words they’re the same. No velocity means the time we observe is the same time the photon takes. Next, see what happens when velocity is greater than the speed of light: you get a square root of a negative number. That creates an imaginary number, which is why mathematically speaking, faster-than-light travel would be impossible. Next, and here’s the main point, t is always greater than t’ when velocity is greater than 0. This means that we will always observe the clock to be going slower than a stationary clock. Therefore, time slows down as velocity increases. Finally, when v = c, you get a square root of 0, or infinity. That’s the mathematical proof that it takes an infinite amount of time for the photon to bounce up and down. In other words, TIME STANDS STILL, just like in the Rush song.

Turn The Page (Hold Your Fire)
How do we experience the “here-now” in space-time? Let’s let Rush answer that one: “Every day we’re standing / In a time capsule / Racing down a river from the past / Every day we’re standing / In a wind tunnel / Facing down the future coming fast.” One model of the nature of time is the Chronon Theory of Time, that says time is not continuous, but made up of tiny particles that are tightly pressed together. These particles, or chronons, are the smallest definite time interval (10 to the negative 24th seconds). This is the amount of time it takes light to travel across the smallest interval of space we know of. Therefore, each “here-now” is like a snapshot, and time is just a continuing series of snapshots. But we perceive the series to be smooth, sort of like how movies are a quick-moving series of frames, which we perceive as a continuous flow. In other words, moments in space-time is like another Rush album title- moving pictures.

Prime Mover (Hold Your Fire)

This is an inspiring and powerful song about opportunities and urges whose only limit is our own self-imposed restraints and rationalism. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like Rush is discussing the nature of the universe, but the internal battle between the Id and Superego (a theme you can find throughout their albums, especially on Hemispheres and Counterparts). However, the phrase “Prime Mover” was coined by Aristotle. He believed that space and time are absolutes, and an object’s natural state was “at rest.” He believed the universe would have always been at rest if it wasn’t for a Prime Mover, the original presence responsible for kick starting objects, which in turn put other objects in motion. But the Prime Mover is at “absolute rest”, and is thus the standard by which an observer could measure distance and time. This has long since been proven incorrect (there are no absolute measurements, in either space or time), but it’s a neat idea and Rush hints at the coolness of such a Prime Mover towards the 3-minute mark of the song: “I set the wheels in motion / Turn up all the machines / Activate the programs / And run behind the scenes. / I set the clouds in motion / Turn up light and sound / Activate the window / And watch the world go ’round – .” In a way, we’re each a Prime Mover (we can all make it happen), but Newton and Einstein have shown that there’s no universal Prime Mover sitting in the middle of the universe with a universal watch on his arm.

Neurotica (Roll The Bones)
Let’s face it, if there was ever a bad Rush song, this one is it. (And maybe also Rivendell, I Think I’m Going Bald, The Body Electric, Red Lenses, and most of Test For Echo, but that’s IT!). But one thing you can’t deny is that Rush know their physics, as evidenced by this song’s best line: “Time is a spiral-Space is a curve.”

The Color Of Right (Test For Echo)
One of Rush’s best characteristics is that their lyrics reflect their longing for a kinder, more sensitive, more just world. After numerous songs trying to analyze why most of humanity has turned sour (see Power Windows and Hold Your Fire), they admit with The Color Of Right that sometimes there’s just nothing you can do about the unfairness of situations, and the yearning for justice can sometimes blind you from reality. But there are also lines in this song that back up the argument that Rush are not only armchair sociologists, but armchair rocket scientists as well: “Gravity and distance / change the passage of light.” Once again, Rush are showing off an in-depth knowledge of Einsteinian physics. Well, distance doesn’t change light, but gravity bends it in areas of large mass.

Other notable references: “Laughed at by Time / Tricked by circumstances” (Circumstances, Hemispheres). “To live in between the wars / In our time / Living in real time / Holding the good time / Holding on to yesterdays” (Between The Wheels, Grace Under Pressure). “Time is a gypsy caravan / Steals away the night” (Dreamline, Roll The Bones). “Playing for time / Don’t want to wait for heaven” (The Big Wheel, Roll The Bones). “When will the time be right? Anytime but now” (Double Agent, Counterparts). “Though we know that time has wings / We’re the ones who have to fly” (Everyday Glory, Counterparts).

Rush is the greatest band ever. Make sure to buy all their albums. Don’t listen to anyone who says they suck.


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