How Music Influences Science Progress

Music and the Making of Modern Science (2014), was reviewed by Physics Today in this month’s issue. It has received the American Publishers Award for Professional and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE Award) in Music and the Performing Arts.

Physics Today recently caught up with [Peter] Pesic to discuss Music and the Making of Modern Science …

PT: According to the reviewer, you make the provocative statement that “science followed music.” What does it mean?

Pesic: My book presents cases in which developments in music preceded and arguably influenced subsequent developments in science. Such influences go back to the beginnings of Western science in Greece, where music first connected numbers to physical experience on earth, as astronomy connected numbers to the motions of the planets. This deeply colored the later development of Western science as Galileo and others increasingly used mathematics to understand physical phenomena. Thus, Johannes Kepler approached his Third Law via music; Isaac Newton imposed a musical scale on colors. Thomas Young instanced sound and music to argue for the wave theory of light. Later, Erwin Schrödinger invoked overtones to understand wave mechanics, even though he disliked music. And Max Planck spent the year before turning to the blackbody problem experimenting with harmoniums and choruses to investigate whether music was really tuned in equal steps …

PT: How do you see music influencing contemporary research areas in science? Or vice versa?

Pesic: I think that music is mostly buried within the strata of contemporary physics as it formed over the past few centuries, but that occasionally it still emerges with surprising force. Consider, for instance, the way that string theory persistently engages with musical examples and metaphors; particle physicists still find resonances whose shape exactly recalls that of a vibrating glass … read more –> Physics Today full article

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