The sounds of sci­ence

Peter Pesic

Pasatiempo - - News - Peter Pesic

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.