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Home SCIENCE What Pop Stars and Real Stars Have in Common | Sciences

What Pop Stars and Real Stars Have in Common | Sciences

Just as songs are repeated in choruses, formations in space take understandable shapes. Shown here are the large Cartwheel galaxy and two smaller companion galaxies.
NASA / Illustration by Emily Lakiewicz

I’m not a scientist (I routinely Google the answers to my daughter’s fourth-grade math questions), but I do do a kind of science: I’m a songwriting teacher, and during the Renaissance, music was considered a relative nearby mathematics, geometry and astronomy. That may be hard to imagine today, but as I look at the amazing images the James Webb Telescope has been beaming back to us since July—of spiral galaxies, binary stars, and echoes of the Big Bang—I can see the connection. In astronomy, elements “dissolve” into understandable orbits or familiar chemical compounds; in music, they are “resolved” into choruses and melodies that we can sing.

Consistently repeatable answers may not be surprising in fourth-grade math, but when a high-powered telescope provides instantly recognizable patterns floating hundreds of millions of light-years away, it’s hard not to ask: How is that possible? And similarly, in the realm of music: What makes us create and respond to a similar type of repetition in our art?

Here’s a wound from early in my teaching career: After listening to a student’s song in class, I suggested he repeat a phrase. When she simply asked, “Why?” I realized I didn’t have a satisfying answer beyond “Well, that’s how most songs are written.” What is more tradition? Trade? laziness? I didn’t sleep that night. I needed a better answer.

Philosophers and writers have long concerned themselves with the nature of repetition and its appeal to the human mind. They have discussed past lives (Plato), spirals of time (Gianbattista Vico), eternal returns (Friedrich Nietzsche), and the possibility that repetition is not even possible (Heraclitus). Unfortunately, none of the ideas I found were particularly helpful, especially for a songwriting class. I wondered if a universal answer could come from the universe itself.

I wrote my last book Music, lyrics and life: a field guide for the advanced composer, The same way I write songs, I started with a question, followed it, and rode the ride. Many of the experts I interviewed were not composers, but they were still grappling with similar questions in their own fields and in their own ways: this was definitely the case for cosmologist Janna Levin, a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow who currently holds the Claire Physics tower. and Astronomy at Barnard College. Levin book 2016, Black Hole Blues and other songs from outer space, tells the story of the Nobel Prize-winning team that helped build the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which detects gravitational waves caused by black holes as they “plunge through space-time… waves in an ocean”. (By the way, you can hear gravitational waves for yourself, right now.)

What I got from Levin was more than an explanation of musical repetition. It was a new interpretation of reality itself.

Composers and astrophysicists have an affinity for repetition. It’s frequently used as a tool in music, but to astronomers, there seems to be an assumption that repetition involves forces that are working on purpose, perhaps even intelligently.

Absolutely. One of the things that SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, does is look for very regular mathematical signals because they assume that nature will provide no such thing: nature is messy, and therefore nature can’t do anything that regular. So if you find an incredibly regular signal, you hope it was sent by someone in control of your environment, who made it that way.

But sometimes we are wrong about that. Have you heard of pulsars? There are big stars that collapse and die, and they don’t end up forming black holes, they’re not big enough, so they form a neutron star. And the neutron star is spinning, it’s got a huge magnetic field, and it’s basically turning into a lighthouse. It literally has a beam of light, and as it spins, that beam passes by you, No irregularly: radio astronomers detected one, and it was clock on, men. Clock on! I don’t remember if it was a millisecond or a second type of time scale. but it was like boom, boom, boomso regular that [astronomers] he jokingly called them LGM, which stood for “little green men”. And then over time they realized that this is a natural source. [A pulsar] it is simply a perfect watch. For billions of years, it will not slow down. And it will not waver. And that can happen, that nature does something so perfect.

What does repeated information say about humans that we are so intrigued by?

I am a great believer that we inherit mathematical structures because mathematics made us. Evolution is guided by the forces of nature, that’s how we evolved, and those forces, unsurprisingly, leave an imprint on the fabric of our minds. Of grade they have to be mathematicians. And in a broader genetic sense of who our family was, who our parents were, our parents were the laws of physics. And in our minds, it’s encoded there. And we are discovering the structure of our minds. So I can sit there with a piece of paper and discover algebra, and discover geometry, discover topology, discover different branches of mathematics, because it’s in my mind.

There are also communications within the animal kingdom, such as bird songs, that are repeated. And repetition corrects mistakes. So, you know, if you didn’t get it the first time, you’ll get it the next time…

We want to be unique in the language, but we also want to be repetitive enough that you recognize the words. I want to say those words to you over and over and over again, like with children, and then they acquire language. You need the repetition first to understand what the words mean, but then I want to be able to say something unique by putting those words together in a certain way.

That’s a basic theory of songwriting: choruses repeating themselves and teaching themselves to the listener. . .

Right. LIGO has a hard time detecting something that only explodes one time. Has to repeat so you can get it out. In fact, one of the things we’re really looking forward to from LIGO in the future is that you listen to something long enough to be able to hear replays. That is all exactly what you want to search for. And those repetitions will allow you to identify something. You know, it’s like someone yelling in the street and you’re like, “Did I just hear that?” And then if it’s over and over again, you’re like, “Oh! Something happened!”

That’s what I’m talking about!

That’s what science is all about: reproducibility, experimentation, the fact that someone else can do it and get the same answer. I was talking to someone from Oxford who said, “Look, this is a real experiment: in your mind, imagine a circle, divide it by the diameter. You just derived the formula for pi. That’s an experiment. And anyone can do the same thing.” experiment in your mind and get exactly the same answer.

I consider that to be as tangible as anything. It may not mean that I physically, externally, pulled out a tape measure, right? But that’s just as real to me as if I had, and in a sense it’s plus real because my tape measure is imperfect, but in my mind it is perfect. How is that not real? That is all real.

So repetition, whether from the same source or the same calculation, makes something real.

I think a lot of people who lean as much toward abstraction as I do struggle with “reality” because it’s less real. “What do you mean that chair was blue? I think it is khaki-colorful.” “I think it’s lavender.” Like, there is less reality in reality than in our minds. So it’s very comforting to know that if you’re from Bangladesh, 200 years ago, and you did the same thought experiment pi, it’s 3.14159, etc. There is a sense of connection that is very deep. So I think if you think of repetition as an evolutionary trait, then it makes sense that we have it.

And the reproducibility of something like pi connects us to each other, and maybe to whoever else is out there.

Without any flaw, without any guru, without any mistake, just the pure ground of thoughts. There is no experiment in the history of mankind that conjures up pi. will evoke approach to pi, but never pi itself. The only place pi exists is in my mind and yours. And if we both do it right, we’ll be amazed that no matter where we are in the universe, we’ll get the same digits. How is that not real?


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