Musical Universe… or Mathematical Universe?

I have been reading a book The Jazz of Physics: The secret link between music and the structure of the Universe, by Stephon Alexander. One of my daughters, Alanna, gave me the book as a Christmas gift. I found it an interesting and easy-to-read book with some new ideas and perspectives given by the author. He writes in an informal, anecdotal style that invites continued reading, while at the same time giving useful background to real physics research, useful references and insight into the standard paradigms of cosmology. He also includes interesting vignettes of his interactions with other physicists and musicians with whom he has worked.

Alexander’s main emphasis is how music is related to physics and vice versa. He uses his knowledge and personal fascination with music to introduce and augment a variety of topics in physics, astrophysics, and cosmology. For example in the chapter “The Harmony of Cosmic Structure,” Alexander connects the observations of the variation in the anisotropy of the Cosmic Background Radiation (CMB) with the quantum oscillations that supposedly originated the Big Bang, using a detailed analogy from vibration modes in sound.

Alexander has as his underlying hypothesis that the Universe is from its primordial beginnings essentially a musical universe. As he writes in the chapter “The Harmony of Cosmic Structure,”

“My vision of a musical universe was more than an analogy; I realized it was becoming literal.”

Quite accidentally I also started reading The Mathematical Universe, by Max Tegmark,  arXiv:0704.0646v.2. In this article, Tegmark pursues the theme that the Universe is ultimately a mathematical structure. His opening motivation is the remarkable success that applications of mathematics have had in Physics and therefore he extrapolates that any ultimate accurate model of “external reality” will be purely mathematical – without the “baggage” of our evolved human communication and language. For example, early on in his paper Tegmark says (p.4):

“Whereas the customary terminology in physics textbooks is that the external reality is described by mathematics, the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH) states that it is mathematics (more specifically, a mathematical structure)”

I found it ironic that both Alexander and Tegmark find in a particular specialization that they themselves love, music or more specifically jazz in one case and mathematical purity and symmetry in the other, a  fundamental method for representing the universe. Furthermore there is an intimate connection between mathematics and music, as Alexander makes clear on numerous occasions in his book.

I was reminded of another book I have read and mentioned before – Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Hofstadter.  That book is about the nature of human consciousness rather than about the fundamentals of physics, but what struck me was that Hofstadter used the work  of a mathematician (Godel), a musician/composer (Bach) and an artist (Escher) to frame his conceptions of human consciousness. Following this kind of analogy one might look for some physicist to represent the fundamentals of the universe as being like a work of art.

Still others have proposed that the universe is in some sense a computer. For example, Stephen Wolfram in his book A New Kind of Science (Wolfram Media, 2002) has suggested that reality results from some kind of algorithm, like a computer program. As well, J. A. Wheeler’s phrase “It from Bit” follows from his notion

“that all things physical are information – theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.” (Wikipedia, John Archibald Wheeler)

I have to admit I am partial to these last two notions, but that is material for another blog.

Alexander’s book is intended for non-physicist readers and is definitely an easier read than Tegmark’s paper, but he does touch on some deep and current physics, including his own work in the area of string theory. I found reading it helpful in providing a new perspective on physics ideas I thought I knew something about. I was intrigued that he worked in the area of string theory – a specialty in Physics that I have not explored very deeply myself,  primarily because some of the reading I have done on that general area has not been entirely positive about the prospects of string theory’s contributions and prospects – but that too is a topic for another blog. I must admit after reading Alexander’s book that I am tempted to look into the subject more deeply – especially the papers that Alexander himself has written. One of the reasons for my interest is the intuitive connection he draws between his physics ideas and music – specifically jazz.

I was also impressed by Alexander’s reference to “purpose” – as he writes, in a later chapter entitled Interstellar Space:

“As we ponder the link between sound, improvisation, and the formation of Structure and the causative link with a most interesting structure, life itself, One can’t help but wonder: Did the universe create structure for a purpose? We run into murky waters when physicists start talking about purpose…Is it Not part of being human to seek purpose?”


Alexander does not dwell too long on his own ideas of human purpose. He does ask the question:

“If our cosmic origins are seated in sound pattern, is it too far-fetched to think that music viscerally enables us to tap into those origins?”

And a bit later on he suggests an answer:

“If one of the fundamental functions of the universe, as I’ve argued, is to Improvise its structure, perhaps when Coltrane improvises (jazz), he is doing what the universe does, and what the universe did was to create a structure that would come to know the universe itself.”

I found Alexander’s excursion into the sense of purpose refreshing and heartening because it ties in so nicely with the main ideas I have been trying to express:

That we are a tiny but very precious part of the universe that is seeking to know the Universe itself and this self-reflexive process lies at the core of our deepest insights about the purpose of our own existence.   


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