Music and String Theory (Part 2)

Read Part One first!

We left off with:

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

This bit about all these musicians in the tech industry really bugged me. It seemed like there was some sort of left-brain/right-brain confusion going on there. Then one night, I woke up a 3am, sat bolt upright and yelled, “It’s binary! It’s binary! It’s all binary! No – wait! It’s octal, too!”

[My wife at the time was quite upset by this little rant for some reason] Most of us know that most computer language is represented in binary, octal, and hexadecimal notation. Amazingly enough, written music in the horizontal plane (time) is binary, and in the vertical plane (intonation) octal. In a broad sense, the written language of both music and computers is the same.

Now that I claimed that bit of trivia, I found absolutely no use for the knowledge. I do believe, though, that it has something to do with the affinity of musicians to the field of computers.

And now we get to physics – specifically string theory – and language, the subject of this post. Yes, I know that the word “music” (not “language”) is in the title. But music is, in fact, another of mankind’s languages. Music is quite distinct from sound, and this distinction is based on tonality. The notes of music have specific tonal harmonics. The harmonics may be different (eastern vs. western, for instance), but are always present. Even atonal music uses notes from the harmonic overtone series, and may intentionally distort the pitch to produce a specific effect. Without the harmonic background, it would just be another noise.

So, here is the interesting bit. String theory is based on harmonic overtones. Somebody noticed that particular states of energy could be represented by a vibrating string, like a plucked guitar string (very tiny, though!). A guitar string – basically a one dimensional object – vibrates in two dimensions. It has a limited number of harmonics. However, if you joined the ends, making it a two dimensional object (donut shaped) it now has the ability to vibrate in three dimensions and produces a much more complex harmonic series. As we expand out mathematical knowledge of these strings, we find that we can account for observed energy states by determining how many dimensions are required to produce the required vibrations. This is how we end up with 11 dimensions. We need a string with that many dimensions to account for the different states of matter (energy) we observe.

I pointed out in The Physics of Success that even though most people don’t think of themselves as traveling through a fourth dimension, our language refers to time as a dimension through which we travel. Language was well established prior to Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and until then nobody thought in those terms, even though everybody spoke in those terms. We talk about fictional time travelers as moving forward and backward through time. We say time passes. We describe time as passing quickly or say time slowed down. We instinctively use spatial coordinates to describe a location and, for lack of a better word, time. I’ve always thought that even though we humans had no idea that time is a dimension, we insinctively shaped our language to reflect the way things actually are.

And now I’m wondering if our inexplicable fascination with music is an instinctive reflection of the basic harmonics of nature as quantified in string theory.

And, of course, that would explain the affinity that physicists, mathematicians, and technologists in general have for music.


Posted in Physics, Random Interesting Thoughts