The love affair between music and science began in an ancient Greek blacksmith shop, where the legendary Pythagoras did the first experiments connecting ratios and sounds, such as the lengths of plucked strings and their pitches. The strange and wonderful connection between numbers and music has continued to be the subject of fascinated study to this day. (I wrote an entire book on it.) In “The Jazz of Physics,” Brown University physicist Stephon Alexander explores the analogies between jazz and scientific inquiry, especially its improvisational, free-form side.
Though relatively young, Mr. Alexander has structured “The Jazz of Physics” as an autobiography in stories, episodes from his life reflecting the music, ideas and people important to him. His trajectory makes one reflect on the aspiration of science to reach past the all-too-human contingencies of birth, race, sex and nationality. His Trinidadian grandmother made him practice Mozart, though he was “more interested in how music worked than learning to play others’ compositions.” He turned to hip-hop about the same time that he encountered the figure of Einstein: “I sensed I was like him, and not just because my curly Afro resembled his wild locks, but because I saw a loner who liked to play with symbols and ideas the way I liked to play with musical notes on paper to make my own songs and try to answer my own questions.”
Throughout his book, Mr. Alexander moves back and forth between the worlds of music (he became an accomplished sax player) and science. He keeps coming back to Einstein and to John Coltrane, whose complex musical diagrams he interprets with the same seriousness and excitement that he finds in equations. Coltrane, he notes, was fascinated by Einstein, who also played the piano. Coltrane’s playing and theories in turn deeply inspired Mr. Alexander. Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” haunts the book, as its young protagonist seeks to take his own steps in the worlds of music and physics. More familiar with the older milieu of physicists steeped in Beethoven, I was struck by how many of Mr. Alexander’s mentors were jazz buffs, feeling at home with improvisation and urging him to take similar leaps of intuition in his research. The mathematical physicist Christopher Isham told him to “stop reading those physics books. You need to develop your unconscious mind; that’s the wellspring of a great theoretical physicist.”
Mr. Alexander moved through a number of different scientific fields, including neuroscience and biophysics, before arriving at the work in theoretical cosmology for which he has become known. He gives an engaging account of his uncertainties and worries as he made his way in the highly competitive world of theoretical physics, seeking to acquire the “chops” needed to deal with the formidable mathematics of his day job along with those needed to solo on the sax after dark. Along the way, he describes his encounters with such jazz and rock greats as Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins and Brian Eno, as well as eminent physicists like Leon Cooper, William Unruh and Gerald Guralnik.
The counsel to improvise physics seems to have helped Mr. Alexander make his own mark on the field. A crucial physics insight came “as I was soloing with the equation of D-branes”—infinitesimal vibrating membranes envisioned by some versions of string theory—“on a piece of napkin, with jazz in the background . . . and a happy thought came to me: What if colliding D-branes could ignite the big bang?” After a few glasses of wine with another theorist, he was inspired: “In an ecstatic frenzy, I improvised my calculations, with a certainty that the equations would work out”; after a few months of work, he showed his work to his colleague, who said: “You nailed it!”
Mr. Alexander’s rhapsodic excitement is infectious but leaves one wondering how far a neat idea in physics can be compared to a dazzling riff. Human listeners may judge music to be beautiful, yet nature may remain unmoved by a very cool theory. Mr. Alexander is an ardent Pythagorean, a believer in the power of music and number to illuminate and even change the world. He points to Kepler and Einstein as exemplary practitioners of that visionary musical quest for the laws of nature, and he sees much promise in ideas about cosmology he considers guided by music. For instance, he describes the way primordial sound waves shaped the early universe toward the galaxies and structures we now see. Music also provides him with analogies of harmony and structure that he finds useful in his own work. Though he acknowledges that a theory “has to measure up to the truth,” Mr. Alexander is more interested in its beauty. He seems less concerned with the inevitable struggle to find experimental confirmation that dooms many attractive theories. Pythagoras, after all, found his truth in a smithy, not just in speculation.
Like the ancient original, I suspect a modern Pythagoras would be an improviser and innovator rather than a flawless executant of the old music. Too many classical musicians merely play the notes given to them without feeling the need to improvise and create them anew. Jazz requires the improvisational imagination of a composer, especially active curiosity and engagement with harmony (such as Coltrane’s charts display). Perhaps Mr. Alexander and his colleagues have found in jazz an inspiration that will help them sing a science that nature never heard before.
After reading Mr. Alexander’s account of primordial sound waves shaping the universe, I wonder how he felt when the gravitational waves from the collision of two distant black holes recently caused detectors in Washington and Louisiana to tremble in sympathetic vibration, swooping audibly from the deepest bass up to middle C. What would Coltrane have made of those black holes jamming in C?
—Mr. Pesic, director of the Science Institute and musician-in-residence, St. John’s College, Santa Fe, is the author of “Music and the Making of Modern Science.”