All who dare
To cross her course
Are swallowed by
A fearsome force
Through the void
To be destroyed
Or is there something more?
Atomized, at the core
Or through the astral door
To soar - Cygnus X-1
Lurks. Invisible. X-ray. Spin. Whirl.
These are a few of the words you will find in a new article in Air and Space Magazine (“The First Sighting of a Black Hole” by Matthew Francis). These words are also found in “Cygnus X-1,” a song Neil Peart wrote almost forty years ago.
Such is the mystery and fascination with black holes, places in space so compact with matter and so strong with gravity, that nothing, not even light, can escape.
The magazine piece discusses “Sagittarius A,” a supermassive black hole located at the center of our universe. I can’t say for sure, but it’s a good guess this story will serve as a point of fascination for some of the young minds of today, youth who might one day parlay their love of science into a career, hobby or some other creative adventure.
The science community is always looking at ways to capture new hearts and minds. Reaching for the moon fascinated young and old alike in the sixties, but after the excitement, interest in outer space waned.
Geeks and lovers of science turned to reruns of “Star Trek,” or other science fiction.
The genre hit me like a rock when I was a teenager. Issac Asimov was one of my heroes, and in the early 80s, I became a fan and collector of OMNI magazine (The stuff they predicted is now coming true!).
In 1976, Rush gave their fans a cool, hard-rocking dose of sci-fi with “2112,” a Wagnerian concept album about a dystopian world where priests shun dreams and creative minds. Side Two’s (remember those?) "Twilight Zone" played around with the fourth dimension, three-eyed monsters and a giant boy (Neil always loved oxymorons).
The Canadian trio followed up 2112 with “A Farewell to Kings.” The record concludes dramatically with the song, “Cygnus X-1, Book One, The Voyage.” Peart’s description of a deadly voyage to a black hole was the stuff of science fiction, but the science behind the story was not.
Before they had a name, Einstein theorized the nature of black holes. Stephen Hawking made predictions about their properties. But it wasn’t until 1964 that scientist got really excited with the discovery of an X-ray source coming from the constellation Cygnus.
After reading an article written in the mid-70s, one about the discovery of Cygnus X-1, Peart decided to write the song. “A Farewell to Kings” was released in September, 1977. Whether or not Cygnus X-1 trips your fancy is a matter of personal choice. Give it up, though, for a song that showed that science and art can dance together just fine.
Certain critics, however, scoffed and screamed at this supposedly pretentious band who had the audacity to write an almost ten minutes long song about a black hole (to say noting about the audacity of Lifeson and Lee to both play doublenecks!).
For fans of Rush, however, including this one, they couldn’t get enough of the stuff. On the Kings tour, a video accompanied their playing of Cygnus X-1.
Big goosebumps ya’ll.
As hard as they are to understand, black holes are fascinating. They’ve sparked our creativity in many ways. One such inspired person is Brian Greene. He is the author of several books including “Icarus at the Edge of Time.”
In September of 2008, Greene was a guest on the Kojo Nnamdi show. When I heard Kojo say the book was about "a 14-year old boy who takes a spaceship to the edge of a black hole," my antenna shot straight up.
At about 13 minutes into the show, listeners heard this.
On to Jay in Alexandria, Virginia, go ahead Jay, you're on the air.
Yes, Kojo, I wanted to ask the author if he's aware of a song, it was written in the late 70s by the rock group RUSH, it's called Cygnus X-1, and it talks about a spaceship and the encounter with a black hole.
Greene said he wasn't aware of the song but added that "Cygnus was certainly the place where a black hole was really first identified and convincingly shown to be a black hole."
With time always short on Kojo's show, I figured that would be the end of our conversation. Greene and Kojo, however, surprised me by asking me "to sing a few bars of the song.”
Half-chuckling, I declined.
Those familiar with the song know why. Cygnus X-1 is a unique musical creation, with Geddy Lee’s high-pitched voice capturing the experience of being swallowed by “a fearsome force.”
I was disappointed Greene didn’t know about Rush’s song, but things turned around at the end of the show when the producer played a clip from the song.
Sadly, as I listen now, the podcast cuts off before playing the clip.
Hard to say what happened. Maybe there are black holes here on Earth…