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Book Review

The Universe and John Coltrane: The Physics of Cosmic Vibrations


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The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe
Stephon Alexander
272 Pages
ISBN: # 13: 978-0465093571; # 10: 0465093574
Basic Books

On the face of it, the premise that jazz and physics are related disciplines seems strange and remote. Because of its spontaneous nature, rhythmic pulse, and emphasis on emotion, jazz is a personal, subjective artistic means of expression which is accessible to almost anyone. Physics, by contrast, is the most abstract and objective of the sciences, so mathematically sophisticated that much of it is understood by only a few brilliant theorists and researchers. So, how could these two diametrically opposed endeavors possibly be related to one another?

Stephon Alexander, a physicist and cosmologist who is also a jazz saxophonist, succeeds in making the case that the two endeavors have enough parallels that jazz can be used to develop theories of physics, and physics in turn elucidates the nature of jazz improvising. Moreover, provided you can grasp popular writings and lectures on relativity theory, quantum theory, and cosmology, you will find that he weaves it all into a fascinating story about himself, his peers and mentors, jazz, mathematics, and, most of all, the birth, life, and death of the universe. In fact, one of his main points is that self, music, math, and the cosmos are all mirror images of one another linked by one common element: vibrations.

The author himself is a person of interest. His family migrated from Trinidad to the Bronx, where, in high school, he developed a dual preoccupation with physics and jazz. Eventually, he pursued higher education and a career as a physicist at the best graduate schools and research facilities in the U.S. and England, while at the same time playing jazz at every opportunity. It's a success story of an African American from an immigrant family rising from the streets to the highest intellectual achievements while never losing his wildly imaginative rap music street smarts. The one thing noticeably lacking in his account of his peripatetic movements around jazz clubs and cosmology projects is any disclosure of a romantic love life. Instead, his obsession is with analogies between physics and jazz. He is in love with them.

Alexander's purpose in this book is to explain these physics-jazz analogies to us. He fervently and cogently argues that the cross-fertilization between the two disciplines can enrich and deepen our understanding of the origin and development of the universe, as well as provide answers to the always puzzling question "What is Jazz." After we meet and hear the ideas of the great physicists from Newton and Einstein to Heisenberg and Hawkings and a lot of Nobel Prize winners in between, there arises the cosmic mind of none other than John Coltrane. For Alexander, Trane's tune "Giant Steps" and his mandala musical diagram of five-pointed stars circumscribed by the circle of the chromatic scale embody his insights into modern physics. Alexander suggests that Coltrane's knowledge of relativity theory and modern physics enabled him to expand the scope of jazz to its farther reaches. That contention seems exaggerated. In light of Coltrane's wide-ranging interests in philosophy, spirituality, literature, and world music, physics was only one of many intellectual influences. "Giant Steps" and the mandala were the products of a synthesizing mind drawing from many sources, a mind that was obsessed with music, not physics. (As Alexander points out, rare were the moments when Coltrane was found without a horn in his hands.)

Despite his almost fanatical zeal about the jazz-physics connection, Alexander's arguments are thorough-going and rooted in mathematics, theoretical discussions, and decisive experiments and observations. The particulars of such research and theories are difficult for the uninitiated reader to grasp. Even with the considerable help generously given by the author, non-physicists can only begin to understand what these sophisticated equations and experiments represent. However, a lay person's approximation of what it all adds up to might be as follows.

Jazz and physics, Alexander tells us, are linked by analogies, striking similarities that make for useful comparisons. To begin with, Einstein's relativity theories state that time and space bend over into one another, sort of the way a jazz musician bends notes and rhythms. Thus, a very fast moving projectile (approaching the speed of light) shrinks in length and its time slows down (now verified by countless measurements). By analogy, in jazz, the use of the same note in a different chord makes the note itself sound different. (The notes we hear are "bent" in musical time/space by their context.) Next enters quantum theory, which says that there is a degree of unpredictability in the universe, analogous to improvised music that can't be known in advance. Finally, string theory (which despite the author's enthusiasm is still controversial) says that the most fundamental subatomic elements are comparable to vibrating strings whose frequencies in various dimensions ultimately determine the way the universe is constructed. Scientists used to think everything was built from atoms and the void; then the physicists discovered that atoms are made of wavelike fuzzy particles called quanta, an example being a photon of light. String theory says these wave/particles result in turn from the actions of infinitesimally small vibrating strings that fill the vacuum of time/space. Similarly, in jazz, a sequence of notes (vibrations) in a melody fills the vacuum of silence, resulting in extended improvisations. Overall, both the cosmos and jazz are resilient time/space vibrations that result in shapes and forms that are not entirely predictable.

Alexander's perspective is thus largely based on string theory, the theory that the universe is a vast array of vibrations analogous to musical notes. If string theory is true, then it makes sense that music and the cosmos both ultimately consist of vibrations which, in the case of music, follow the rules of melody and harmony (Ornette Coleman's "free jazz" loosens these rules, allowing for multiple universes of musical expression; string theory allows for the possibility of many universes, of which ours is but one), and, in the cosmos, the laws of nature. This idea of the unity of physics and music goes back to Pythagoras' "music of the spheres" and has been updated several times in the millennia that followed.

Alexander points out that for the vibrations to create organized structures like galaxies and songs, building blocks of the frequencies must be formed which can be arranged in diverse ways. This occurs through the creation of differences called "symmetry breaking." Symmetry in the cosmos is when the laws of nature are the same from all points of view of space/time (up-down, left-right, before-after). Symmetry in music is found in the chromatic twelve-tone scale, where the notes are equally divided (the same intervals no matter where you start). But it is when symmetry is broken that all the interesting things begin to happen. In the universe, it is from asymmetrical "spin" that atoms, molecules, stars, planets, and life forms ultimately emerge. In music, such as with the major scale (with symmetry-breaking half-tones in the midst of whole tones), tunes and harmonies can be developed with infinite possibilities. So string theory suggests that everything that exists derives from the same symmetry-breaking patterns of vibrations. As Alexander expresses it, the universe itself consists of asymmetries which ultimately manifest in stars, galaxies, planets, and so on, just as jazz consists of symmetry-breaking scales, modes, and rhythms which form the basis of improvisations. (Some time ago, Charles Keil, in an article entitled "Participatory Discrepancies and the Power of Music " (Cultural Anthropology, 2, no. 3. 1987) suggested that the jazz idiom uses divergences from standard musical forms to engage listeners. These discrepancies break into the symmetry of the musical flow, creating a multitude of possibilities for the improviser.)

For Alexander, these ideas from physics and jazz come together in the theory of the Big Bang. From the combined perspective of relativity, quantum theory, and string theory, the Big Bang that started our universe was like jazz show in a small, intimate club like the old Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village. Space and time were infinitesimally condensed, and in a moment like Charlie Parker's bebop improvisations, the jazz cosmos exploded, rapidly expanding and continuing to this day. What makes the cosmic vibes jazz-like are the chaos and uncertainty from which all the small but plentiful strings improvised worlds upon worlds. In the beginning, the cosmic jazz musician stepped in and said, "Look what I can do with this tune," and started to play. The physicists not too long ago discovered and called that musician the Higgs Boson, which you may have read about in the science news. (The Higgs Boson is a particle that appears to configure all the other subatomic particles. Its existence was verified by the CERN project in Switzerland in 2012.)

All this may sound like science fiction rather than science fact, but Alexander is fairly convincing that his viewpoint represents the reasoning of the most advanced scientific minds. The centerpiece of his ideas, string theory, is at the heart of Alexander's perspective and is a plausible veiwpoint in contemporary physics. However, not all physicists agree with string theory. Its overall validity as hard science remains to be decided in the future. If the cosmologists' ultimate "theory of everything" proves to be based on a string-like theory of wave forms like musical notes, then physicists a few decades from now will be saying, "Hey, that guy Alexander was right! Long live Jazz!" But if the ultimate theory turns out to be based on something else, like a new kind of geometry or field theory, then Alexander's book will become an oddity in the history of jazz and physics. However, regardless of its ultimate fate, the story that Stephon Alexander weaves in The Jazz of Physics is a beautiful one that will have you marveling about both the cosmos and the wonderful sounds that we call jazz. It's a love story between these two disciplines, and we all know that "Love means never having to say you're sorry" (unless you're a physicist trying to get tenure at a university.)

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