Igor Stravinsky commented that music is certainly related “to something like mathematical thinking and relationship”. For scientists, too, music has been a fruitful subject of study as well as a rich source of metaphor. When theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek and journalist Betsy Devine called their book on modern physics Longing for the Harmonies, everyone knew what they meant.
Peter Pesic, in his provocative new book, argues that music has influenced the development of physical science, from the earliest beginnings of the scientific revolution right up to string theory.
The musician and physicist passes swiftly over the “music of the spheres” – the ancient notion that patterns in the motion of celestial bodies are a form of music. But Pesic is at pains to show how from Plato’s time to the 18th century, music, alongside astronomy, arithmetic and geometry, was part of the West’s quadrivium, a common educational curriculum. Pesic demonstrates that by the late 16th and early 17th centuries, music was prominent in the work of astronomer Johannes Kepler.
Kepler incorporated musical ideas into the foundations of astronomy and, says Pesic, even rejected algebraic results that contradicted musical experience. Later, philosopher René Descartes cast music in a new light by reconsidering its relationship to mathematics and sound – music was no longer a divine force but something that could be understood scientifically. Pesic has a tougher sell in the case of Newton, who allegedly walked out of the only opera he ever attended.
Yet Newton’s early notebooks show he studied music and, a decade later, applied the musical scale to defining the colours of the spectrum. Pesic’s account of 18th-century mathematician and physicist Leonhard Euler is also telling. Euler spent most of his free time on music, and he went on to devise a “degree of agreeableness” that indexed musical intervals and chords, work that closely preceded his interest in number theory. Building on Euler’s work, and that of the experimental physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Ernst Chladni broke new ground when he effectively made sound visible.
Adapting Lichtenberg’s experiments with charged metal plates and iron filings, he applied violin bows to differently shaped plates with sand on them to check the vibrations and patterns they created. These “Chladni’s figures” make visible the spatial patterns made by sound waves (see picture). But by the 20th century, music looked less important to the work of the most creative theoretical physicists. Take Max Planck, the father of quantum theory.
He was an accomplished pianist and wrote about music, but Pesic seems to be clutching at straws when he notes that Planck preferred to set out his quantum theory in terms of “resonators”, rather than use the marginally less musical term, “oscillators”. Another founder of quantum theory, Erwin Schrödinger, was at best indifferent to music. So, too, was John von Neumann, one of the 20th century’s greatest mathematicians.
“John von Neumann played gramophone records of marching bands, to Einstein’s irritation”
Though not featured in Pesic’s book, one of von Neumann’s former associates told me that he had little interest in music “apart from playing gramophone records of marching bands, to… Einstein’s irritation”.
Einstein himself was a violinist and could scarcely imagine a life without music, though he believed it had nothing to do with his work. Pesic does not tell us, but in 1928, Einstein told psychologist Paul Plaut: “Music does not influence research work, but… they complement each other with the satisfaction they offer.” Many modern physicists would probably agree, but Pesic argues that “the musical groundwork had… become part of the mathematical and theoretical structures” that they tend to take for granted. Whatever the truth, this handsome book will appeal to all who yearn for the universe’s harmonies – real, abstract or both.