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Chris Ruiz | TRIUMF | Canada

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Music of the Spheres

A quick thought on the parallels between physics, and my other love, music. I have always considered myself a musician, although I am not as proficient as I’d like to be. There is a stereotype that physicists only listen to classical music, perhaps due to the appreciation of the underlying mathematical constructs, but although I am a huge classical fan, I was brought up with my Father’s vinyl collection: The Doors, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Bowie, Dylan,… This has highly influenced the kind of music I appreciate today.
The main thing I wanted to share however, was an exchange I had with one of my closest friends who is a Jordanian composer, currently working on a theatrical production to celebrate the initiation of the ancient city of Petra into the ‘seven wonders of the world’. We often have lengthy conversations over some single malt about physics, and for a musician, the guy has an impressive collection of popular science tomes. In an email exchange recently, I posed to him a thought I’d had in reaction to some ‘anti-scientific’ exchanges I’d had on Youtube with a supporter of Creationism along the lines that ‘science destroys the beauty of nature’. Here is my email excerpt to my friend (excuse the maloquence!):

Recently I was debating with someone about scientific reductionism. Their argument was that science somehow belittles the beauty of nature because it seeks to understand reality in its microscopic and most fundamental form by the breaking down of its description into mathematics and laws etc. They argued that the beauty in life is in the mystery, in the not knowing, and that was the basis for a lot of the feeling of people with ‘faith’. I tried to argue back that science is not ‘reducing’ nature by understanding it, and in fact most scientists see beauty in nature and reality in the same way, if not stronger, than most people. 
Then I thought about the example of music. When you first hear an amazing song, you experience it totally and freely and let the sounds sink into your ‘soul’, but then we, as musicians, feel compelled to listen deeper, to understand just how the guitarist hit that pinch harmonic or bent that note a fraction of a second later than we’d expect, of how there are probably three, not two, keyboard tracks laid on top of one another and they’re just out of phase and recorded at different locations relative to the mics giving a certain ethereal dimension. Then we pick up the guitar and we try to mimic the music, and we take it and we make it our own, and we sing it to ourselves and maybe even perform it to others, but do we now think that the music is less beautiful because we have taken away the mystery? Do we appreciate it less because we understand the sound waves and the admixtures and exactly what we’d need to reproduce it? I don’t think so, because if true, then all musicians would be incapable of enjoying music, because every time they learned a song it would become banal, and they would lose their passion, but the passion stays, and that is what drives musicians, and also scientists, because there is always joy in understanding, and always another puzzle to solve. And physics is exactly that – it is the learning of the song of nature, with a mind to being able to perform it ourselves, and reproduce its notes, that we might discover other songs and other dimensions of melody not yet conceived. 
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