Greatest Show On Earth (1)

“The Greatest Show on Earth”: How Science and Heavy Metal Came Together

June 7, 2022 - Ellie Gabel

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Nightwish is a Finnish musical group that specializes in what they’ve dubbed symphonic metal. The band released its first album in 1996, mixing heavy metal riffs with delicate soprano vocals, elaborate orchestrals and complex lyrics that leave the mind spinning. One of their best-known tracks is called “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

On the other hand, Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and devout atheist who is no stranger to controversy. He published his first book, “The Selfish Gene,” in 1976. This book features one of the earliest explanations of what happens inside a genome and was published long before scientists started tackling genome sequencing. 

What do these two vastly different groups have in common? Music. In 2015, Nightwish released its eighth album, “Endless Forms Most Beautiful.” Its final track, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” is a 24-minute-long epic featuring a guest appearance by Richard Dawkins himself. What brought these two together, and what makes “The Greatest Show on Earth” special?

“In the Beginning There Was Nothing, Which Exploded”

Astronomers and astrophysicists are learning more about the universe every day, but there’s still plenty they don’t understand — and even more that they wouldn’t even know to ask. Despite this uncertainty, there is one thing that everyone agrees on: that in the beginning, there was nothing, and then it exploded. The Big Bang marked the universe’s origin and set everything in motion. 

That is the story that Nightwish’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” aims to tell. This 24-minute epic begins in silence, much like the universe before the Big Bang. Then, a delicate series of piano chords slowly emerge from the silence. There is little rhyme or reason to the notes, representing the universe before time began. After about a minute and a half, the universe begins with an explosion. 

It’s not until the five-minute mark that life finally begins to emerge. Enter Richard Dawkins, who lends his voice as a narrator, introducing the listener to the concept of life in the universe. 

The music builds, adding drums and energetic instrumentation, before Floor Jansen’s vocals fill the song. The song’s lyrics continue the story, talking about things like LUCA — the last universal common ancestor. Biologists have identified a single-celled organism as the biological ancestor of all life on Earth, from the smallest microorganisms to the largest vertebrates. 

The music and lyrics continue, telling stories of humanity, from giving birth to poetry to craving shiny rocks and giant mushroom clouds. Finally, at the 18-minute mark, Dawkins returns.

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die, because they’re never going to be born.” 

Finally, he quotes Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” before the music fades into ocean sounds and nothing. The song begins in silence to represent the universe before the Big Bang and ends the same way to describe where it will all eventually return. 

A Marriage of Opposites

Richard Dawkins had never heard of Nightwish before receiving a handwritten letter from lyricist and keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen, asking him to be part of “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Holopainen had previously studied science in university before dropping out to pursue his music career. He had developed an interest in iconic scientists and biologists like Charles Darwin and Carl Sagen, which led him to Dawkins’ doorstep. 

Dawkins was fascinated by what the band was trying to do and joined the project. The rest, as they say, is history. Heavy metal and evolutionary biology might seem like strange bedfellows, but this marriage of opposites helped create one of the most unique pieces of music the world has seen in a long time. 

Most of Nightwish’s fans seemed excited about the album when it was released in 2015. This isn’t the first time Dawkins has tried his hand in the music industry. In 2013, he performed the “Memes vs. Genes” song to introduce the Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors Showcase. 

Stories in Song

Humans have been telling stories since the beginning of time as a way to teach, inform or entertain. Putting them to music isn’t a new concept, but the way each musician approaches their stories is what sets a unique spin on the task. Nightwish and Richard Dawkins are two things most people wouldn’t include in the same sentence, but the story that they tell together is worth listening to. It doesn’t hurt that the song seems to speak directly to one’s soul, either.

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Ellie Gabel

Ellie Gabel is a science writer specializing in astronomy and environmental science and is the Associate Editor of Revolutionized. Ellie's love of science stems from reading Richard Dawkins books and her favorite science magazines as a child, where she fell in love with the experiments included in each edition.

1 Comment

  1. Brendan Carter on April 25, 2023 at 9:52 pm

    The Greatest Show On Earth! Is a masterpiece, credit must be given to all people involved, and credit must be given to you, the author of this article. Your open minded approach to polar opposites, and the multiple stories involved to bring us this fantastic article, I appreciate! Thank you, Ellie!

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