By Julia Simpson
Setting the scene for November 21st, 1975:
The Vietnam War had ended in April1 and the success of the US-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz mission in July offered hope of geopolitical stability2. NASA’s Venera 9 mission departed Earth for Venus in June, and in October, it beamed back the first-ever images of another planet’s surface3. The Star Trek Original Series aired from 1966-19694, and was already a cultural phenomenon, while Star Wars was still two years away from gracing theaters5. This was the age of Elvis, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and Elton John6. My dad was seven and only a year away from discovering his mom’s stash of Beatles albums, which initiated his lifelong love of rock music. Then came November 21, 1975, the day that brought the world A Night at the Opera: Queen’s fourth studio album, best known for its mega-hit Bohemian Rhapsody, which rocketed the band into international superstardom7. This album also introduced the world to a song called ’39, an epic science-fiction story of love, sacrifice, space travel, and time dilation, written by Queen’s astrophysicist-turned-guitarist Brian May.
Amid folksy strumming interspersed with otherworldly background vocals, ’39 uses real science to evoke real emotion. Set in a fictional far-off future (century unspecified), ’39 tells the story of a world struggling with a resource scarcity crisis. Humanity, desperate for relief, sends a starship into space to scout out a distant planet that may be habitable and therefore could represent a solution to Earth’s problems. The verses are in third person, with the speaker relaying the tale of the starship’s journey as if it were a passed-down legend. The choruses are in first person, with the narrator speaking as a crew member of the starship, addressing the love he left behind. It is through this character’s journey that the idea of time dilation comes into play – but more on this later, as the plot of the song unfolds. The stage is set; you have a basic background on the state of the world, the pop cultural and geopolitical attitudes towards space, the major players in rock music at the time May wrote ’39, and an overview of the song’s premise – so let’s dive into the lyrics. ’39 wastes no time getting to the heart of its narrative, opening with these evocative lines:
In the year of ’39 assembled here the volunteers
In the days when lands were few
Here the ship sailed out into the blue and sunny morn
Sweetest sight ever seen
The “lands were few” line immediately alerts listeners to the fact that Earth, in this speculative fiction world May has imagined, is in crisis. The only critical resource scarcity directly mentioned here is land, but this is by nature a nuanced circumstance, and thus its mention invites listeners to read between the lines and infer the concurrent existence of related, contributing issues. Examples could include overpopulation leading to overcrowding and greater spread of diseases, lack of arable land to produce food for the masses, rising ocean levels encroaching upon settled areas, and unequal distribution of available resources causing societal tension and unrest. Though the song debuted in 1975, this explicit theme of land scarcity, as well as the implicit themes layered within it, feel more relevant than ever as the dramatic effects of climate change become increasingly disruptive and the civic unrest connected to these unaddressed issues become more prevalent. In the song, humanity has decided that their best hope is to send a ship of volunteers on a voyage towards a far-off Goldilocks planet. This information is conveyed in the next stanza, which establishes that “for many a lonely day,” the ship introduced in the first stanza “sailed across the milky seas,” a poetic way to inform the audience that the “sea” in question is actually the Milky Way galaxy. Then comes the chorus, which reoccurs three times throughout the song:
Don’t you hear my call, though you’re many years away
Don’t you hear me calling you
Write your letters in the sand
For the day I take your hand
In the land that our grandchildren knew
Here’s that point-of-view shift! The speaker here is a crew member of the starship, crying out through the void of space to the love he left behind. This first chorus tells us that, during his journey, “many years” have passed, an important point to note because it lays the groundwork for introducing time dilation more clearly in the third verse:
In the year of ’39 came a ship in from the blue
The volunteers came home that day
And they bring good news of a world so newly born
Though their hearts so heavily weigh
As a fan of literary analysis, I love the syntactic parallelism of repeating “in the year of ’39” from the very first line of the song, and the thematic parallelism of how “came a ship in from the blue” follows through on the narrative promise to see the starship’s voyage through to its conclusion. Now for the time dilation: it is once again “the year of ’39,” but the chorus told us that “many years” have come and gone. Before delving into the implications of this, the speaker first presents his “good news.” This news directly addresses the land scarcity problem introduced in the first stanza, and tells listeners that the voyage was successful: the crew found a planet (“a world so newly born”) within reach of Earth that is habitable and available, implying that the resources and space provided by this planet could sooth the struggles humanity is suffering on Earth. It sounds incredible, too good to be true – so of course, it is on this emotional high note (the speaker has returned to Earth! He can reunite with his love! Humanity is saved!) that the narrative gut-punch is delivered:
Though the Earth is old and grey, little darling, we’ll away
But my love, this cannot be
For so many years have gone, though I’m older but a year
Your mother’s eyes, from your eyes, cry to me
The crew’s hearts are heavy, despite their mission’s success, because the Earth they’ve returned to is not the one they left. The mid-verse shift from third person to first person here is lyrically smooth but structurally jarring, a subliminal way for May to convey the message that something is wrong. This is where the full tragedy of the song’s characters is laid bare, and where May manages to explicitly integrate the idea of time dilation as predicted by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity into a classic rock song: “Though I’m older but a year,” the speaker says, devastation readily apparent, “Your mother’s eyes, from your eyes, cry to me.” The speaker, in his round trip through space to the Goldilocks planet – across the Milky Way and back again – has spent a year away from home, but the world moved on without him. The repeated line “in the year of ’39” implies that one year for him has been a century on Earth. “The Earth is old and grey,” and so is everyone he knew at the time of his departure. The emotional gravity of this is emphasized in the last lines of the final chorus, as the narrator fully realizes his fate:
All your letters in the sand cannot heal me like your hand
For my life
There’s a moment of silence in the song after the words “pity me,” before the guitars pick back up for one last riff of the main melody. By all accounts, the narrator is a hero: he embarked on this brave, desperate mission with humanity’s future riding on the outcome, and returned victorious – and yet, giving humanity a new world cost him everything. It’s a melancholy note to end on, with the speaker’s overwhelming heartache at facing a long, lonely life in a world without his loved ones juxtaposed poignantly with the major chords of the closing guitars.
Now that your heart is sufficiently twisted into knots, let’s do the same to your brain, shall we? You’re acquainted with the narrative arc of ’39, so it’s time to dig into the astrophysics at the core of the story. What is time dilation? Well, I am not a physicist, but Kip Thorne is – in fact, he won a Nobel Prize for it8. In 2014, Thorne wrote a book called “The Science of Interstellar,” where he methodically analyzed the physics-related basis for the movie “Interstellar” and all of its mind-bending shenanigans9. In one of the movie’s famous sequences, the characters go from a spaceship down to the surface of a planet that’s positioned very close to an extremely massive black hole. Proximity to this black hole bends spacetime in a way that means every hour on-planet is equivalent to seven Earth years – in other words, time passes slower closer to objects with very large gravitational influence. In ’39, the time dilation occurs not due to gravitational bending of time, but differences in acceleration between the two vantage points in question – the perspective of Earth, which stayed put, versus that of the starship, which accelerated to incredible speeds on its voyage. I found Neel V. Patel’s article on time dilation for the MIT Technology Review helpful in understanding this concept10. Basically, if there’s a clock on the starship and a clock on Earth, the starship clock (when considered from the Earth clock’s vantage point) will tick slower than the Earth clock when the starship is moving at “relativistic speeds,” which Patel defines as “at least one-tenth the speed of light.”
Brian May started out his career studying physics at Imperial College in London, then left academia and went on to become one of the most iconic guitarists the rock world has ever known (with some of the most iconic hair the music world has ever seen). Over three decades later, he returned to Imperial College11 and successfully defended his thesis – “A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud” – in 2007. His work was published by Springer in 200812. Interestingly, ’39 was only the second-ever Queen song on a studio album for which May sang lead vocals13. May still tours with the remaining members of Queen.
Shoutout to my sister Emily for several years ago introducing me to what is now my favorite song. For me, a scientist who also happens to love poetry, literary analysis, and classic rock, ’39 is a perfect storm of great music, lyrical genius, and scientific intrigue. To the readers who made it this far, I hope you go forth and listen to this song on repeat like I did when writing this piece – and that having this background on the lyrics and their meaning allows you to enjoy it just a little bit more.