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Post details: Music of the Spheres

Music of the Spheres

When I was in college, I noticed that math majors were more prone to play a musical instrument than any other science majors. And I think there is a reason to it. Math is to sciences what music is to arts. A far out cousin from the platonic Universe.

Almost all sciences refer to the material world that surrounds us. They have no problem describing a lake. A physicist will tell you what are its thermodynamic properties, a chemist will point out impurities in the water content, a biologist will draw your attention to the plethora of Latin named microcritters in it. But mathematicians have trouble relating to the lake. Their cohomologies, integrals and Hilbert spaces are ill suited for the splashy medium. Mathematics has no concrete object to describe. Its domain is, almost literally, the pi in the sky.

Similarly most of the arts have no problem dealing with the lake. A writer can conjure up a story of a drowning fish, a painter can revel in the blue palette of its glistening surface, a filmmaker can dreamily pan from one shore to the other. A musician is ill equipped to deal with the lake though. His art speaks to listeners' emotions directly, rather than through references to familiar objects. Just like a mathematician, who appeals directly to readers' abstract reasoning, rather than to specific empirical associations.

As a payment for their high speed connection to the real world, most arts and sciences are bound by numerous external constraints. A writer may need to carefully research the 15th century French haute couture for his latest medieval novel. A physicist may need to introduce an ad hoc friction coefficient or a cosmological constant to make her theory agree with experiments. Musicians and mathematicians, on the other hand, have only rules of inner harmony to answer to. They are the supreme rulers of their Kingdom in the Air.

I think that music and mathematics are the strangest crafts our species has developed so far. But at the same time the most intriguing and very similar in spirit. Watching the action of the modular group on the rotational hyperboloid of one sheet is as intriguing as listening to Canzona da Ringraziamento from Beethoven's 15th String Quartett. In either case, it feels like peeking into God's windows.



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