Aug. 10, 2006

Is it the mystery, or the structure, or the discipline? Whatever the reason, playing music seems to attract physicists

Albert Einstein played the violin. Werner Heisenberg was a distinguished pianist. Richard Feynman played ... well, the bongos. But you get the idea.

Music and physics seem like disciplines on the opposite ends of a spectrum. One, you might say, is cerebral, concrete and evidence-based. The other is ethereal, changeable and subjective.

Yet, good physicists are very often good musicians. No one seems quite able to pinpoint the connection -- but more than a few are pretty sure that one exists.

At Cornell, the physics department in Clark Hall is home to a substantial chunk of the university's musicians -- including, perhaps most notably, David Mermin, the Horace White Professor of Physics, former director of the Laboratory of Atomic and Solid-State Physics, and pianist.

"Music I find deeply mysterious," Mermin says. "In a certain sense it has no content except formal content. It's relations between sounds; it's putting sounds together in ways that make beautiful patterns. It's entirely nonverbal ... and yet it says something. It's a marvelous demonstration that mentality is not just talking to yourself -- that there are other ways of communicating very directly.

"Physics also erects very beautiful formal structures," he adds, "which can be described in ordinary language, but with difficulty. They're both creative acts. Physics at its best is an art form. It's a language of its own."

Senior physics lecturer Kathy Selby also says she is drawn to the two disciplines for their similarities. Graduate student Mohammad Hamidian and senior lecturer Alan Giambattista, though, say they like music and physics because they feel so utterly different. They all agree that the two pursuits complement each other in a particularly meaningful way.

Selby, a violinist-turned-fiddler, teaches a class in the physics of musical sound. She says the disciplines have overlapped since Pythagoras outlined the clean numerical relationships between harmonious pitches such as octaves, fourths, and fifths. Others -- 19th-century physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, for example -- have also considered music very much a part of their field.

Music and physics contain the same basic elements, Selby says. And both require taking on a difficult challenge and working toward a far-away goal.

"I would say the key word is tenacity," she says. "All physicists who are successful have tenacity, and musicians need it, too. You need to be able to work alone in a very self-disciplined way. They're both bottomless challenges."

But Giambattista, who plays both the piano and the harpsichord, points out that tenacity is necessary in other fields as well. If there is a connection -- and he thinks there is -- he argues it's less clear-cut.

"People say music is really mathematical; that rhythms are fractions, and frequencies are ratios and logarithms," Giambattista says. "But when I'm playing a harpsichord piece, I'm not thinking about ratios and fractions."

Music is putting patterns together, he adds, just as in physics where scientists seek meaning out of diverse phenomena -- "but you could say the same thing for lots of things. If you're a visual artist, one of the things it's about is patterns. And colors are frequencies of light. So I don't know why frequencies of sounds are different from frequencies of light."

For Hamidian, also a pianist, the two disciplines feel more different than similar. For him, music is an escape from long hours of studying and lab work. "A lot of the musical ensembles on this campus are composed of engineering and science students," he says. "I don't know if those are the people who want to get away from what they're doing, or where there is a connection."

But like his colleagues, he does think some connection between physics and music exists. Both are fundamental, and precise, and potentially beautiful. "Some physicists are romantics in a sense, because we deal with trying to explain the universe," Hamidian says. "And I think there's a similar romanticism when you're playing music."