The Chronicle Review

Soul Science

For the 10th-anniversary issue of The Chronicle Review, we asked scholars and illustrators to answer this question: What will be the defining idea of the coming decade, and why?

August 29, 2010

As a teenager in the Bronx, I had a passion for the toiling and meditative brooding characteristic of scientific discovery. Scientists had a "cool" I coveted. On the other hand, there was the wealth and athleticism of basketball players, and the fame and glamour of hip-hop artists who stared out from billboards in Times Square. While I feared that science would be an isolating and frustrating pursuit, I equally feared that the other two professions were just media-driven hallucinations. My wavering fears and desires resulted in an identity struggle among scientist, athlete, and musician. If only recognition and comfort blazed behind successful scientists as it did behind successful entertainers.

During high school, I was quick to notice that even in a population of 300 million there is only room for a few Michael Jordans and Jay-Z's; there would hardly be room for me. And I couldn't find support for my coveted identity of a hip intellectual, scientist-cum-entertainer. Our culture craves entertainment and will pay well for it, yet it is unclear why the appeal is largely dependent on technological advances, such as social Web networks and quantum mechanical devices such as cellphones.

After completing a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, I had the fortune of befriending Brian Eno, who has produced the music of acts like U2, Coldplay, and David Bowie, among many others. His musical genius, I learned, involved a multidisciplinary approach—his innovations were congruent to how physicists conduct their research. I remember Brian tinkering with the geometry and logic of cellular automata. To my surprise, I witnessed how it developed into a new music form called generative music.

It became clear that the fundamental questions in the sciences overlap with questions in the arts and humanities, enabling collaborations between like-minded individuals in their respective fields. The results of such joint research could organically reroute our understanding of what's "cool." Consider, for instance, the effect on young people's minds if Kanye West and I programmed a new beat on the Space Shuttle. Throw in some apropos visuals and the resulting video would be a whole new "hip" for our culture to absorb.

I've cross-fertilized physics and music by collaborating with composers and cognitive scientists like Robert Rowe of New York University and Elaine Chew of the University of Southern California, applying mathematics common to string theory to musical cognition and tone/chord recognition. I've involved my students in research projects that relate intriguing geometric forms prevalent in physics—such as beautiful origamilike structures—to models of how the mind perceives music. The students develop computer programs to visualize and play these patterns, and some, in turn, can use these programs to compose new rhythms and forms of electronic music. The project can be taken even further: "Artistic" manipulations of geometric forms open up new directions for research in physics. In essence, a new rainbow of physics emerges by shining old physics through a musical prism.

Naturally, the sequence may continue, and the next generation of music production may use the methods of the new "musical physics." Such interdisciplinary creativity would advance education and research. A culture bred from such minds, moreover, would have the tools not only to discover enlightening and productive sources of entertainment but also to open doors for conflicted individuals to fulfill their truest potential.

Stephon H.S. Alexander is an associate professor of physics at Haverford College.