It might not seem like music has much to do with cutting-edge physics at first glance. In his new book, The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe, Brown University physics professor Stephon Alexanderargues that using music as an analogy can shed light on some of the deepest mysteries in cosmology.
Alexander is not your typical physicist. Born in Trinidad and raised in the Bronx, he developed twin passions for jazz and physics at an early age. As a graduate student, he played the saxophone in jazz clubs and mastered Einstein’s equations. It’s a unique perspective that informs his approach to both; for instance, he views John Coltrane’s seminal Giant Steps album (1960), with its trademark “sheets of sound,” as the “sonic equivalent to Einstein’s bending of the space-time fabric.” Gizmodo caught up with Alexander to learn more about this hidden link.
Gizmodo: In some sense, this is the perfect timing for a book about the jazz of physics. There’s a lot of interest in sonification—turning raw scientific data into sound—both for creating unusual music, and as a unique means of spotting elusive patterns in the data. The LIGO collaboration just detected gravitational waves and turned that data into an audible “chirp.” We’re now listening to, as well as looking at, our world.
Stephon Alexander: Exactly. I believe that by reconnecting the disciplines of physics and music though analogy, we can begin to understand physics through sound. The universe has sound waves: harmony and resonance are universal phenomena that can be used to explain the dynamics of the early universe. When you hear it, it doesn’t sound musical. But [with sonification] you are informing that raw sound data with the question of the science at hand, and you’re using that to guide you to something new.
Then there’s the reverse of that. From a musical perspective, I can take my understanding of the physics of the cosmic microwave background radiation, for instance, or the raw sound map that we get from the WMAP data [from NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe], and tweak that to make it musical. I’m working on a jazz album right now using some of the concepts in the book.
You write about how models of neural circuitry in the brain ended up informing your research on superconductivity and the large-scale structure of the universe when you were a graduate student in Leon Cooper’s group at Brown University. That’s a strong argument for understanding the math: it can reveal hidden corrections.
Alexander: It’s at the heart of my book. You see the wave equation in string theory, you see it in the cosmic microwave background radiation, and you see it in a guitar string. That equation applies to all these very different things that seem to have nothing to do with each other. The math is the connective tissue. There’s an intuitive aspect to physics; sometimes you have to make these crazy leaps. One of the thing I do [as a physicist] is try to make connections between things that people never thought to connect. If there’s something to it, the math will tell the truth. Some hidden equation will connect those things.
String theory in particular seems to resonate with people because of the musical analogy: our universe is “composed” of these tiny strings that make up matter at the most fundamental scale, and the different ways that they vibrate determine the properties of elementary particles and fundamental forces. As you say in the book, it’s like a scientific “music of the spheres.” But string theory has also run into some serious issues in recent years.
Alexander: It’s run into a multiverse of issues. I would say that string theory has gotten postmodern. Old string theory is to bebop as new string theory is to freeform. If it’s going to be a true theory, it must accommodate the fine-tuning problem.
For the benefit of our readers: there are about 30 numbers (called fundamental constants) that define the masses of elementary particles and the strength of the four fundamental forces. They have well-defined values, but change just a few of those numbers—even a little—and the universe would be a very different, far less complex and interesting place. And physicists don’t really know why those numbers have the values that they do. That’s the fine-tuning problem.
Alexander: Right. In jazz music, the whole point of improvisation is that you push the tradition. That is the tradition. Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and Coltrane were always pushing the boundaries. So let’s accept that string theory is a musical theory. How can we put improvisation into it?
I came up with this idea that the universe is like an improvisational system. There’s a cyclic universe [i.e., the universe regularly undergoes repeating “cycles” of big bangs and big crunches]. In that scenario, the coupling constants of nature are improvised, the same way that a jazz soloist improvises and gets a chance every cycle to get a different take on the improvisation.
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