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Nine Million Bicycles

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"Nine Million Bicycles"
Single by Katie Melua
from the album Piece by Piece
B-side "Market Day in Guernica", "Stardust"
Released September 19 2005 (UK)
Format CD single, digital download
Genre Pop/Jazz/ Blues
Length 3:15
Label Dramatico
Writer(s) Mike Batt
Producer Mike Batt
Katie Melua singles chronology
" Crawling up a Hill"
"Nine Million Bicycles"
" I Cried for You"/" Just like Heaven"

"Nine Million Bicycles" is a song written and produced by Mike Batt for the singer Katie Melua's second album, Piece by Piece. It was released as the album's first single in September 2005 (see 2005 in music) and reached number five on the UK Singles Chart, becoming Melua's first top five hit as a solo artist. (She had previously participated in Band Aid 20's 2004 number-one charity single "Do They Know It's Christmas?"). It was a finalist for The Record of the Year prize, losing to " You Raise Me Up" by Westlife.

About the record

According to Melua, the inspiration for the song came from when her interpreter during her time in Beijing, China, was showing her and her manager, Mike Batt, around the city. The interpreter gave them information about Beijing, including that there are supposedly nine million bicycles in the city. Batt wrote a song based around the title "Nine Million Bicycles" upon his return to England two weeks later, and it was one of the last songs to be recorded for Piece by Piece. Adrian Brett, who played the ethnic flutes on Batt's album Caravans (1978), contributed to the song; an ocarina was used for the low sounds, and a Chinese bamboo flute for the high sounds.

Melua said that she liked the song "because it is a simple juxtaposition of a trivial idea ("Nine Million Bicycles") against an important idea ("I will love you till I die")". The website indieLondon named it one of the "highlights" of Piece by Piece, describing it as "genuinely sweet ... The meandering blasts of flute that weave their way throughout lend the song a Chinese feel and make it quite enticing."

The single's video, directed by Kevin Godley, features Melua being dragged across the floor through a variety of settings, including a brief shot of the Summer Palace (Yiheyuan, Chinese: 颐和园/頤和園) in Beijing, until she returns to a picnic in a park with her friends.

The song was featured prominently in a high-profile radio and television advertising campaign for the Slovenian cell-phone operator Mobitel.

Lyrical Error

On September 30 2005, an article appeared in The Guardian newspaper in which physicist Simon Singh humorously corrected the song's lyrics. Singh said that with the song Melua "demonstrates a deep ignorance of cosmology and no understanding of the scientific method", and objected to its second verse, where the song's protagonist "[contrasts] such guesswork with her own confidence in her blossoming long-term love":

We are 12 billion light-years from the edge,
That's a guess — no-one can ever say it's true,
But I know that I will always be with you

Singh interpreted the first lyric as a statement that the observable universe was twelve billion years old, which he said was incorrect; according to "the very latest data", the universe was actually 13.7 billion years old. He added, "the next line in the song is unforgivable. To say that the age of the universe is "a guess" is an insult to a century of astronomical progress. The age of the universe is not just "a guess", but rather it is a carefully measured number that is now known to a high degree of accuracy". He wrote replacement lyrics which he believed would, if used, remedy his concerns:

We are 13.7 billion light-years from the edge of the observable universe,
that's a good estimate with well-defined error bars,
Scientists say it's true, but acknowledge that it may be refined,
and with the available information, I predict that I will always be with you

Singh's statements received moderate coverage in the media, and led Batt to submit a response to The Guardian in which he defended his right to poetic license. Melua agreed to re-record the song's second verse with Singh's proposed lyrics, though she said she encountered difficulty fitting in all of the syllables. The revised version, which omitted the line "Scientists say it's true, but acknowledge that it may be refined", premiered on the radio show The Today Programme on October 15. Melua said that she felt embarrassed by the error in the song, particularly given that she had been a member of her school's astronomy club. Singh himself later said he intended his article to be "to some extent ... tongue-in-cheek", but that he also wanted to defend principles in cosmology "that are on much firmer ground". He added that he believed his response to the song's lyrics had helped introduce cosmology to a wider audience and said that "the writing of the original article was probably the most productive hour of my career".

Unfortunately, the revised lyrics are still incorrect: while the universe is about 13.7 billion years old, the distance to the edge of the observable universe is considerably greater than 13.7 billion light years due to the continuing expansion of the universe. See observable universe.

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