The New York Times Review: As Goes Music, So Goes the Universe

The New York Times Review: As Goes Music, So Goes the Universe

“If the structure of the universe is a result of a pattern of vibration, what causes the vibration?” Stephon Alexander asks in his new book, “The Jazz of Physics.” And does that vibration mean that the universe is “behaving like an instrument?” In the most engaging chapters of this book — part memoir, part history of science, part physics popularization and part jazz lesson — Dr. Alexander ventures far out onto the cutting edge of modern cosmology, presenting a compelling case for vibration and resonance being at the heart of the physical structure we find around us, from the smallest particle of matter to the largest clusters of galaxies.

A professor of physics at Dartmouth College and a lifelong student of jazz, Dr. Alexander has taken on “the challenge to find an isomorphism between jazz and cosmology.” Establishing this analogy is a fascinating prospect and a tall order. Though Dr. Alexander doesn’t succeed in uncovering a profound connection between jazz and physics, or proving that they share a common shape, his report on the state of research into the structure and history of the universe — his own academic field — makes for compelling reading, as does his life story.

The son of working-class immigrants to New York from Trinidad, he was considered “slow” as a child. But he steadfastly clung to an inspiration sparked during a school trip to the American Museum of Natural History as an 8-year-old, where he saw a photograph of Albert Einstein posing in front of a wall of equations. Against considerable odds, he went on to get a Ph.D. in physics — he says he was one of only three black doctoral students in physics at the time in the United States — and eventually received tenure at Dartmouth as an associate professor of physics and astronomy. All the while, he pursued his passion for jazz saxophone and improvisation.

Some of Dr. Alexander’s analogies to jazz feel natural. In a chapter on quantum physics, he likens the physicist Richard Feynman’s conception of the motion of a quantum particle to the way a jazz improviser may aim for a target note during a solo: In both, he says, all possible paths to the destination are considered before one is settled on. Later, at a jazz club, the saxophonist Mark Turner says to Dr. Alexander, “When I’m in the middle of a solo, whenever I am most certain of the next note I have to play, the more possibilities open up for the notes that follow.” This is analogous in Dr. Alexander’s eyes to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that the more one knows about the position of a quantum particle, the less one can know about where it’s going.

“Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science, but man needs both,” Fritjof Capra wrote in his 1975 best seller, “The Tao of Physics,” which explores parallels between quantum physics and Eastern mysticism. The question that can be asked of that book and “The Jazz of Physics” is whether each subject really illuminates the other, whether the analogy adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

Do we understand Feynman diagrams or the Uncertainty Principle any better for having seen them through the lens of improvisation? Or better understand jazz for having compared it to quantum physics? Not really. And these are the analogies that work best. Many others feel strained, like Dr. Alexander’s idea that John Coltrane “incredibly, correctly realized that cosmic expansion is a form of antigravity,” which rests on the titles that Coltrane chose for his late-period albums, among them “Cosmic Music” and “Stellar Regions.”

Deep down, the book feels like an attempt by Dr. Alexander to understand how his passions for physics and jazz can coexist so intensely. It also makes clear that thinking deeply about music has helped him to think freely — and led him to some of his best academic research. But the connection is above all personal.

Dr. Alexander valiantly if laboriously takes us through the full history of physics, from Pythagoras to Einstein. But it is in the later chapters investigating the forefront of cosmological inquiry that his book really comes to life, even if this has little to do with jazz. Still, you are left with the feeling of having had some basic concepts overexplained while some tantalizing, speculative ones — like the left- or right-handed spin of gravitational waves, which he says interact with matter and antimatter differently and could explain the emergence of matter in the early universe — are merely touched on.

The art of analogy is a difficult one, especially when it’s being sustained for the duration of a book. In juggling, if the path of each ball, from the throw to the catch, is just right, the crossing of the balls in the air can create magic. But fumble one and the whole performance suffers. Dr. Alexander fumbles too often here — his writing about music is plagued by factual errors. A few examples: When a string tuned to the note C “is divided into one quarter of its length, we get an F note,” he writes, when in fact we would get a C, two octaves up.

Later, in an analysis of a mandala drawn by Coltrane for Yusef Lateef, he says that in a reading of the diagram, “we get C, C-sharp, E, F and F-sharp, which is an all-interval tetrachord,” when a tetrachord has only four notes, and the all-interval tetrachord, which is asymmetric, couldn’t logically be outlined in Coltrane’s entirely symmetric drawing. A diagram purporting to show the “fivefold symmetry of the C major pentatonic scale” incorrectly implies that the interval between C and G is the same as that between E and C.

Considering Dr. Alexander’s scientific bent, it’s surprising that it’s in the technical aspects of music that he falters. His more poetic ideas about music can be powerful, like his speculation “that the reason why music has the ability to move us so deeply is that it is an auditory allusion to our basic connection to the universe.” This not only feels true; it is what musicians live for.

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