The sounds of science
For three decades, Peter Pesic held a twopronged position at St. John’s College in Santa Fe that was either unusual or inevitable, depending on how you look at it. On one hand, he was a tutor ( roughly what other colleges would term professor), coaxing students through challenging texts of fiction, nonfiction, and speculation that are the ichor of the school’s “great books” curriculum. On the other, he was musician-in-residence, encouraging students in their musical endeavors and offering a stream of piano recitals on his own, often working his way through the keyboard oeuvre of a single composer in the course of a year. He recently turned the corner into the realm of tutor emeritus, though he continues in his musical capacity and, beginning this summer, will direct a new science institute that will take the form of intensive weeklong tutorial seminars at St. John’s. He also finds time to devote to projects elsewhere, which include serving as associate in Harvard University’s physics department and editor-in-chief of Physics in Perspectives, a journal that considers physics in cross-disciplinary contexts. He has published five books with MIT Press, of which the latest, Music and the Making of Modern Science, reflects the bifurcated proclivities of the author’s mind — or perhaps they aren’t bifurcated at all.
Pasatiempo: Rather than presuming to present a complete historical sweep of how music has inspired scientific inquiry through the centuries, your book offers a series of many case studies that focus on moments of that interaction. Why did you choose that approach? Peter Pesic: Partly it was to avoid the trap that some histories fall into, which is that they try to see everything that ever was in terms of their topic. In the history of ideas, the relationship between music and the sciences often involves a very complex causation that sometimes emerges through long conversations. To reduce everything down to one narrative seems narrow, so I found it more honest to approach this through a series of cases. Pasa: Your story begins with the ancient Greeks, with Pythagoras figuring out that different pitches bear dependable mathematical ratios to each other, that music is an audible manifestation of mathematics rather than something separate. How closely connected were music and science in the minds of ancient thinkers? Pesic: A unified system fell in place where what we view as four disciplines — the “quadrivium” of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music — together make up philosophy. The largest theme of the book is how these four sisters give birth to the thing we call modern science, the understanding of the family bond, the meaning of modern science in terms of its four sibling-parents. That was a striking and helpful realization in intellectual history, and its story has not yet ended. It lives on today. Pasa: How can this really be a living tradition when the scientific beliefs of the ancient Greeks are obviously outmoded? Pesic: I have a complex reaction to that. What they were doing was science as they understood it — and in a sense, as it even remains now. Even something like Ptolemy’s view of the earth-centered universe remains scientific. If you asked people, I suppose they would say that the earth is not the center of the universe. But it’s ironic that today, after Einstein and relativity, it’s still possible to maintain the view that these things are relative in a certain way: You can view the cosmos with the earth at the center and view it with the sun at the center. The charts by which navigators travel are still earth-centered. The huge controversy that got Galileo in so much trouble was in a sense relativized, and a quite different view of it was taken later on. The word science meant for the Greeks, in an Aristotelian sense, something like “secure knowledge that would stand.” And their knowledge does still stand in a certain way. Our knowledge also won’t stand up to whatever they have for physics or biology in the 22nd century, but it still has a kind of validity and reliability even if it is restricted in some way. So I think when we read ancient writings about this, it is not merely an
antiquarian kind of thing to figure out what their quaint beliefs were. It’s the way they were thinking that is as interesting to me as what they actually found. It’s how they decided or tried to figure out “What would it take to persuade you that the earth is or is not at the center of the universe?” That happens at every point in science, from the beginning of natural philosophy, as they called it, to the present day. When people are trying to figure out if something really exists, what kind of evidence do they need? Now it’s the dark matter and the dark energy that capture our attention; we don’t even know what they are. We’re at the very beginning, or even before the beginning, of the discovery of the universe, so I guess we’re in no great position to cast stones at earlier generations. Pasa: As with the word science, the word music is not such a simple idea. You encourage people to think of it rather as the Greeks did — which is how? Pesic: It’s a crucial point. To the ancient Greeks, the word musikei meant all the activities of the muses, what we think of as poetry, dance, music, the theoretical world of ratios that were most important in the music of the spheres. It embraced the cosmos as well as instruments and the human body as mediating between macrocosm and microcosm. Pasa: It’s surprising how many pivotal scientists you introduce who were intimately involved with music. Pesic: Many were even skilled in playing music. Take Euler. I was aware of him as a great mathematician, but his first book was actually about music. His life spanned the 18th century, and even at that time he didn’t acknowledge divisions we recognize as self-evident. Mathematics, music, engineering — he could move among them with a kind of freedom that has been pretty much lost. Wheatstone and Faraday are among the most important figures in the study of electricity, and they were deeply involved in experiments with sound at the same time they explored electricity. Wheatstone built an instrument called the enchanted lyre. A rod that was attached to the soundboard of a piano conveyed the sound to another room, where the music would appear mysteriously. It led to his discovery of telegraphy,
Charles Wheatstone’s “Harmonic Diagram,” 1824
Opposite page, frontispiece of Marin Mersenne’s Harmonie Universelle, 1636