Among Stephon Alexander’s formative influences were John Coltrane, Albert Einstein and Tony Stark. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Alexander, an iron man of physics, has devoted his life to uncovering the connections between music and cosmology. He’s a superhero in that realm.
Alexander, a professor at Brown University and an accomplished jazz saxophonist, has just released a book, “The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe.”
On Thursday, Alexander will visit Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park to discuss the book and play his sax. He expects to be joined by David Boyce of San Francisco’s Broun Fellinis. The music will help explain the book’s concepts.
The book is a culmination of a lifelong exploration. “A lot of that was congealed right there in Palo Alto, where I lived for three years,” Alexander says. “I was a postdoc at Stanford.”
In early childhood, Alexander warmed to the sounds of classical and calypso music in the family home. He was intrigued by how music functioned.
“Children are inherently curious about whatever their interests might be. I was exposed to music at a young age and I naturally was inquisitive about not only how to play music, but how music worked, because music was this magical thing. Why is it that these sounds are evoking those kinds of feelings? Where I grew up, in the Bronx, lots of people had to find various creative outlets or you would be gobbled in these tough neighborhoods.”
Some in his neighborhood explored hip-hop or break-dancing. For Alexander, the sources of fascination and creativity were science and music.
He enjoys the fact that both music and physics are filled with mysteries. “The interesting thing is, I find fundamental physics more mysterious today than when I learned the principles in freshman physics class. And I feel the same way about playing a simple blues scale. Many of the notes in a blues scale are naturally generated from the simple phenomenon of resonance. Why is it our brains register the blues scale as something that’s interesting to most listeners?”
Historically, many great scientists have linked music and science, dating back to Pythagorus, Kepler, Newton and Einstein. Alexander’s favorite photo of Einstein is one of him playing the violin.
“Music doesn’t replace the language we have to use, but it’s an inspirational and a different way of talking about modern physics. One of the reasons I wrote the book was to provide another way to talk about the physics that I’m so excited about.”
Playing music enhances his understanding of physics concepts. Alexander has recorded an electronic jazz album, “Here Comes Now,” with Erin Rioux.
“Having a musical life has opened my mind to thinking about physics in different ways,” Alexander says. “Mastering technique gives us freedom to express ourselves. And being able to play an instrument is another skill set that gives you more freedom to explore the unknown in physics.”
One of the things Alexander hopes to do with his book is to show that the way some physicists do research employs elements of jazz improvisation. “We improvise equations and concepts.”
Alexander considers improvisation to be vital, not only in music and physics, but in life generally. “Improvisation isn’t about trying to create something perfectly. Thinking that way, people will freeze up. There’s a spontaneity that comes with life and with any sort of creative act. And with that, we should recognize the value of non-judgmentally embracing mistakes, learning from them and transforming them into something interesting. That’s what’s important about improvisation … and life.”
Alexander hopes the links between music and physics will be more widely examined in the future. “Putting on the musical lens has certainly helped my research, studying the origin and evolution of structure in the universe.
“Physicists have always known that there’s a link between sound waves, sound patterns, and structure formation. But it’s one of these things that’s so obvious in the minds of people, that they just took it for granted. Whereas, because I have a musical background, I saw that this was really cool and should be explored in more depth.”
Readers who may not be as scientifically inclined can benefit from his book, as well. Alexander’s personal story and anecdotes make the subject accessible.
“When they look around them, at the world, think about the planet Earth and our sun and our universe, I hope they share a sense of awe. I hope the book starts a conversation about the bridge between the sciences and the arts. When you start bridging different fields together, you get unforeseen new creations.”
Email Paul Freeman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Books and Music
Who: Stephon Alexander
Where: Kepler’s Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Admission: Free; www.keplers.com to RSVP
Author website: www.stephonalexander.org