Music and String Theory (Part 1)

Another long one – Part Two to follow!

After working as a metallurgical plant design engineer for a while, I got fed up and decided to move to a civil engineering firm, where roads, subdivisions, and golf courses took the place of chutes, hoppers and conveyors. Commercially viable computers were in their infancy, and during my orientation walkthrough on my first day at the civil engineering firm, I was able to recognize that they had an HP9835-T computer. It was across the room, and they remarked, “You know what that is?”

They parked me right there and I took over their Computer Aided Design and Drafting (CADD) system on the spot. I’ve remarked many times that my qualification for my first position in computer systems engineering was that I could recognize a computer at 10 paces.

Shortly after, I found myself attending an advanced 2-week training at a DEC facility in Massachusetts. I remember there were 11 attendees, some of them from places like the Kennedy Space Center, San Diego Municipality, General Motors, as well as government agencies and military. I was very intimidated, coming from a little old civil firm in Tucson and having nearly zero computer experience, so I was pretty much of a wallflower in that class, which is where the Music Meets String Theory comes into play.

One fateful lunch some of us were sitting around a hibachi grill at a Japanese restaurant, when the young lady from GM turns to me and asks where I got my computer degree. I already had a tough enough time being an engineer with a music degree, so I was pretty adept at avoiding that sort of conversation, but this was just a blunt question, with no way to evade an answer. I told her that I had no degree in computers (I didn’t even know they had degree programs for computers!).

There was a very awkward silence around the table. She said, “What, exactly, are you doing here? This training is for professionals, not just somebody walking in off the street!”

At which point, I said, “Well, I studied Music Performance if that makes you feel any better.”

And then all hell broke loose – mainly because (it turned out) that 9 out of the 11 people in the class, plus the instructor, had backgrounds in music. It turned out that she was the only one in the room with a “computer” education. The awkward silence was a bunch of musicians hoping they wouldn’t be called out.

Years later I became an employee of DEC, and it turned out there were several bands, from cover bands to big swing bands, made up from their employees. Throughout my technical career, I often ran into musicians. Now I’m finding a similar disproportionate number of musician friends are physicists, and vice-versa. One physicist friend in his 60’s retired and is now completing a Masters in Music (jazz performance)!

If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music . . . . I cannot tell if I would have done any creative work of importance in music, but I do know that I get most joy in life out of my violin – Albert Einstein

Part Two. . . .


Posted in Physics, Random Interesting Thoughts