The Jazz of Physics

When science, music and spirituality converge in the search for and the finding of truth I am genuinely moved. I was moved in ways I cannot fully articulate reading Stephon Alexander’s book, The Jazz of Physics, a book about the search for the answer to the question: How did the structure of the universe come to be?

Having a Welsh background (Griffith) music is in my soul.  Music leads me into awareness, feeling and knowing beyond words. For example the statement, “Love changes everything”. Hearing this you may nod your head in agreement.  But when I hear the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber,  “Love, Love changes everything: Hands and faces, Earth and sky,  Love, Love changes everything: How you live and How you die”, ( I feel the truth of that statement in the depth of my being.  I am carried away by its truth. Jazz is a specific kind of music which runs the gamut from smooth jazz with improvisation on a melody to avant-garde that may be characterized by nontraditional, aesthetic innovation and initial unacceptability.  The latter is the music Alexander played and for him it became an analogy for the way discoveries in physics are possible.

Physics is another one of my passions.  Even though I can not do the math, I do see the connections between the spiritual yearning for understanding who I am /why I am here and the reality being explored by physics studying the physical movement of evolution to how we came to be here. In this book Alexander comes very close to bringing these two explorations together.

The Jazz of Physics is subtitled The Secret Link between Music and the Structure of the Universe.  Sometimes I think sub-titles are dreamed up to pull us into the book.  I am not sure there is a secret revealed. The author does use the language of “analogy” to reveal truths in physics that are like those in music.  There is no mention of religion or even spirituality per se in the book.  In the last chapter Alexander opens up the possibility that science may be delving into the realm of “purpose”, as science and cosmology seem to be addressing the same questions.

If there is a secret it has to do with Genesis 1:1-2, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”, and John 1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”.  From the physics perspective the word is a note, a sound or a vibration.  In Hinduism, in the beginning there was sound (Aum, Om).  A New York Times book review states, “Dr. Alexander ventures far out onto the cutting edge of modern cosmology, presenting a compelling case for vibration and resonance being at the heart of the physical structure we find around us, from the smallest particle of matter to the largest clusters of galaxies.”

This book takes us from the beginning of exploration with the Greek thinker, Pythagoras, through to Einstein, continuing on to the physicists of the 21st Century who are getting ever closer to understanding the beginning of time and the creation/formation of the universe.  My attention was captured by the personal journey of the author as he moves back and forth between math and physics and the experience of Jazz, playing saxophone in groups all through his career.  His use of analogy invites us to explore the connections between music and science. Getting out of your mind allows what you know and what is not yet known to mingle in creative ways leading to new discoveries.  He shows us that trying to prove a theory in physics is a lot like playing a jazz riff. You are doing what you know and you reach a moment when you have to decide how to proceed next.  If you decide to play a “wrong” note or shift to a new pattern everyone in the group will shift with you, and that will determine a different outcome.  Alexander shows us the ways science has advanced in the past 100 years and describes his personal experience as part of this process, all moving to answer the question, “How did the structure of the universe emerge?”

“Understanding how the improvisational nature of quantum fields function in a vacuum is essential to generating the building blocks of matter in the universe, which gave rise to the plasma that comprise the cosmic sea of photons, electrons and protons in the CMB (Cosmic Microwave Background).” (p. 178)

“The dance among harmony, symmetry, instability and the gaps of improvisation, all cooperate to sustain cosmic structure formation.” (p. 215)

Both music and physics have laws/rules to maintain structure, yet both need a creative process if they are going to make us a new composition or discover new information. In music it is notes and rests; in physics it is waves and particles.  It is the spaces between the notes and the vacuum in space where creators discover new possibilities.   The Heisenberg uncertainty principle allows for uncertainty in the evolutionary process.  It allows for mystery in scientific thinking.

“In the 1980’s researchers showed that inflation predicted that the initial waves had the correct characteristics to initiate the sound waves in the primordial plasma – otherwise known as a nearly scale invariant power spectrum of the quantum fluctuations.” (p. 193)

I can’t possibly give you the examples he cites as proofs of the scientific theory of the Big Bang.  When I got further into the book I just skipped over the math and formulas Alexander used to validate the theory of evolution and how it works.  Yet, as I persevered I found an intuitive joy in the way physics understands our universe and how we came to be here.

I like it when the intuitive understanding of Christian scripture (Genesis 1, stating God created the wold out of nothing, order out of chaos and emptiness) and the new science discovering how matter came to be formed out of a vacuum.  This book affirmed my evolutionary Christian perspective from a scientific point of view.  I hope you will give it a read and let me know what you think.

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4 Responses to The Jazz of Physics

  1. jegrif says:

    Hi Dawn, just getting back from taking a holiday from my day to day…It would be interesting to hear what your husband thinks of this book. I like to think that people who speak the language of math and science can introduce the dimension of spirituality to other like minded people without ever using the language of spirituality. They use the language of possibility, potential, and creation that are common to both disciplines which are searching for a better understand about how we got here. We who live in the Christian world are getting ready to look at the question: What does it mean that God created the universe? The threat this question poses is that we will lose our understanding of God. This was my experience. But as I kept the faith, God did not disappear. What changed was the way I understood God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” It could be energy, vibration, or a more mystical sacred presence. Mystics have experienced this feeling of “knowing” or “unity” with God that was beyond definition. Science is really working with mystery or uncertainty but they would not yet call it spiritual. However, we are definitely coming closer together, science and religion, in our search for the answers to the questions, “Who Are We?” and “Why Are We Here?? I don’t believe it is that God will not let us discover Him, but that we need a bigger capacity (a change in our consciousness) to be able to know God or the Creative Energy of life. I think this is what Jesus was (is) telling us: Do not be afraid. Open your eyes. Open your ears. Take it all in. This is the work of love. The work of fear is to push away the unknown; love is trusting in the power that is at the center of life. Love God, love your neighbour as you love yourself. And especially we need this new consciousness to live what Jesus says about loving our neighbour and our enemy. Why I say we need a new level of conscious is because I agree with you that when we come to know the structure of life we are prone to mess with it. This is already happening and I worry about how far we can go with gene therapy and creating life in a test tube before we do something that will destroy humanity. We need to do this work from the place of love if we are going to survive ourselves.

  2. Dave Myers (Winnipeg), an old friend says:

    Hi John
    This article points out some of the things that I have been finding out lately. The best description I have found about how creation could be created out of nothing is that ‘nature’ abhors a vacuum. In its efforts to fill the totally empty space the big (really big) bang happened.

    My comment on that would be that there was something prior to the big bang – nature! Laws and processes must have existed prior to the vacuum to make it unstable. The fact these laws can be reduced to mathematical formulas encourages this thought. Science is moving us closer to a revelation.

    Can we relabel nature as God. Perhaps that can’t be reduced to a formula to discover so until He chooses to return we may be left only with faith. He has promised to return and reveal Himself and His original purpose. Until then I will ponder the form of the the thing that existed (nature or any other presence) prior to the big bang but this theory of the big bang has to presume something prior to the big bang.

    • jegrif says:

      Hi Dave, thanks for your comments. I see by your post that you live in a contemplative way. I like the idea that a vacuum, or empty space, or nothingness is not really empty. It is really something. I see it as full of possibilities. Just like two friends walking along in silence. The silence does not mean nothing is happening. There is a lot happening in each person and between them. There is great potential for something to happen, communication or an emotion to be expressed on each side of the silence.
      And you have identified the very thing that science has not been able (yet) to understand…what was before the big bang. Science does say that in a micro-moment of instability matter can be created. But, as you say there would have to be something that is unstable. This is what makes my head hurt. I can’t imagine that nature or anything could exist before the big bang. I, like you, am content to let this be and hold it in faith. I use the name God or Divine Energy or whatever helps me make sense of this question of beginnings. I personally believe that we can see the eternal in every moment. When Jesus talked about eternal life he was referring to a quality of existence/experience not about a length of time. And, in fact, an experience of eternity is an experience of timelessness…like being engrossed in a good book or a deep conversation or being carried away by some music or being in nature. Time seems to lose its meaning.

  3. hellerd says:

    Of course you know that I live with a math major and computer scientist, but I leave all that to him and just enjoy living in spirituality. You always get me thinking with your posts. I will not be surprised if and when scientists discover the real truth about the beginning and creation, that they discover a supreme being is responsible for it all. However, I also think “God” as that supreme being is so awesome, all knowing and powerful, that He will not let us discover Him! After all, IF we discover the meaning, ifs, and whys of our beginning, then we as “humans” will want to change things (or screw things up). How much supremeness (is that a word) will HE have then? Just thinking out loud. Love, Dawn
    P.S. It is hard to believe we were both raised in the same household and you were always drawn to music and I not so much. I guess music was your way of being inventive and creative when mine was doing crafty stuff.

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