Q and As

Brian Foster: Particle Partitas / Slideshow

Particle physicist Brian Foster has teamed up with composer Edward Cowie and violinist Jack Liebeck in a quest to explain the history of particle physics through music. He tells us more about this collaboration and the relationship between music and physics.

When was the relationship between physics and music first noted, and how has it developed?

The relationship between physics and music grew from the first time that early homo sapiens struck two rocks together and heard a sound. The advent of the harp, pictured on Ancient Egyptian tombs, is at least 5000 years old; the selection of strings of various lengths and tensions to produce different notes is a clear illustration of the use of basic physical principles, although at that point in an uncodified form. Perhaps our first evidence for a systematic scientific investigation of music is in the works of Pythagoras, whose school of philosophy set great store by concepts such as the “Music of the Spheres”, which filled the spaces between the crystalline spheres on which the celestial bodies were supposed to move. Pythagoras discovered the concept of harmonious combinations of notes and built up the pentatonic scale. The mathematical relationships between the notes in a scale and the combinations that sound harmonious were established at this point.

In the modern era, pioneers such as Guericke and Boyle established in the seventeenth century that sound was a wave and that an elastic medium, such as air, was required if it were to propagate.  The basic relations between frequency, velocity and wavelength followed from this and soon led to experiments that established the relationship between the frequency of sounds made by a plucked string depending on its tension and mechanical properties. Today’s modern research in acoustics is now of the highest level of sophistication and employs mathematical modelling of the elastic properties of media and computer simulation to, for example, predict the best shape and construction materials for the modern concert hall. However, not even the most sophisticated methods of modern science have been able to solve questions such as the “secret of Stradivari”, although X-ray, stroboscopic, chemical and other analyses have led to a significant increase in our knowledge of complex musical instruments such as my own instrument, the violin.

What has your work revealed about the relationship between particle physics and music? Do you find any universal patterns that apply to both fields?

Jack Liebeck, the Classical-Brit-winning violinist, and I have been giving lectures since 2005 on the subject of Superstrings, one possible mechanism whereby we can unify all the laws of physics and fulfil Einstein’s dream of a single and beautiful theory which can explain the basic features of the Universe in which we live. This theory postulates that the elementary particles that we produce in experiments at for example the Large Hadron Collider at CERN can be explained as excitations of unimaginably small “strings”. The musical analogy between this theory and the violin, Einstein’s favourite instrument, which he played throughout his life, is obvious. However it is that – an analogy. There is no real sense in which the vibrations of these Superstrings fill the Universe with a sot of Pythagorean harmony and the only way to understand in detail the predictions of these theories is to use the language of physics – mathematics – and to solve the ferociously difficult equations that govern the behaviour of the Superstrings. However, it is a useful picture to carry with one and our experience over the years is that even the least scientific and youngest of audiences can relate to such an analogy of how the Universe works.

The most tangible link between particle physics and music is rather that between the physicists and their love of music. As I mentioned above, Einstein was a passionate musician who often said that he had had more pleasure in his life from his violin than from anything else. Other great physicists were also accomplished musicians – Max Plank sang, conducted and played the piano; Werner Heisenberg, the founder of modern Quantum Mechanics, was a fine pianist who played Mozart concertos with orchestras; in modern times Nobel Laureates Jack Steinberger is a flautist and Richard Feynman played the bongos!

You are in the midst of preparing “Particle Partitas”, a collaboration with composer Edward Cowie and violinist Jack Liebeck. How did this project come to be?

Edward had worked before with the Institute of Physics to compose a piece for solo piano called “Rutherford’s lights” which illustrated many of the properties and research done into light since Newton. As a former physicist himself, Edward has a deep insight into many of the theories of physics. He came across Jack and my lecture, one of which has also been recorded by the Institute of Physics (available here) and contacted us about the “Particle Partitas” project. With support from the Institute of Physics, University of Oxford and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, we have produced a lecture, interspersed with Edward’s music, which tells the story of the history of particle physics from Democritos, Pythagoras and Music of the Spheres up to the present-day search for the Higgs Particle at the Large Hadron Collider. Edward has just finished the last touches to the music, which includes a concluding duet for myself and Jack- all we need to do now is to learn the music and of course produce the lecture which describes the topics that the music embodies.

What are you hoping to achieve with this collaboration?

Jack and I have devoted a lot of effort in the last seven years to bringing classical music and science to new audiences. Our lectures attract fans of classical music who wish to hear Jack play Bach and discover that particle physics, which they may have thought intimidating, can be interesting and fun. Similarly, young people who might be interested in no music older than the Smiths but are fascinated by the story of how we can understand the Universe from the earliest fractions of a second after the Big Bang until the present day, discover that classical music played by a great musician can also be gripping and moving. The collaboration with Edward is a continuation of our quest to exploit the synergies between two subjects about which we both care passionately, music and science. Indeed, this led us to form the Oxford May Music Festival, based in the Holywell Music Room, Oxford, which brings together a wide cross section of music and the arts together with concerts from some of the brightest stars in today’s musical firmament. The Festival is now in its fifth year; the 2012 Festival will take place from May 2nd to 7th.

We are very excited by the new possibilities opened up by “Particle Partitas” and looking forward to working with Edward on the first performance in the Holywell Music Room on June 18th, followed by the first German Performance in the DESY laboratory in Hamburg on June 22nd. We hope that further performances will follow, hopefully at CERN and in the USA. It is an exciting project and we look forward eagerly to June!

Brian Foster is Alexander von Humboldt Professor at Hamburg University, Leading Senior Scientist at the DESY Laboratory and Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Oxford with a research career in high-energy particle physics.