The Universe and John Coltrane: The Physics of Cosmic Vibrations

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.


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