Two years ago scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) "heard" two black holes — one 31 times more massive than the Sun, the other 25 solar masses — smash together.
The unfathomably powerful collision of those two bodies, even though 1.3 billion light-years distant, was enough to ripple the entirety of spacetime itself between here and there, sending out just what researchers at LIGO were waiting to receive: the first ever perceived gravitational wave.
The ripple came in a frequency called a "cosmic chirp," but in every literal way this extra-galactic ringing arrived in a form that could be called . . . music.
Albert Einstein had said these waves existed, but since no one knew if they truly did he wasn’t so self-assured as to comment on their tone and timbre. But, a Greek mathematician, scientist and philosopher, Pythagoras, who lived 2,500 years ago, did have the nerve to say just that.
Pythagoras believed music, mathematics, matter and all reality were only different facades of the same essence. Pointing up and noting the spacing of the orbits of the planets, he compared their juxtapositions with the fractions made by vibrating strings when shortened and lengthened to produce different notes.
The universe, according to Pythagoras, was a divine symphony being eternally performed, the celestial pitches making up the fabric of everything that is. We are insensible of all this because it’s out of the range of our fallibly human powers of perception. "There is geometry in the humming of the strings," he said, adding, "There is music in the spacing of the spheres."
The Greeks intuited not only a great beauty in music, but since this art has no form, gender, species or mortality it was natural enough to deem the phenomenon godly.
When it was discovered that immutable and eternal mathematical ratios were stamped all over the octaves, fifths, and sevenths, suffused in every measure of music, the idea of a "harmony of spheres" made sense.
Perfectly tuned and consonant vibrations underpinned everything there is, acting as the melodic glue holding reality together, said Greek philosophers two and a half millennia ago.
Pythagoras’ spherical chords and heavenly ratios have run through the minds of quite a few scientists and mathematicians ever since. It was in searching for the key to this ethereal harmony that Johannes Kepler was sent down a few dead-ends, finally though to have discovered that there were, indeed, a set of elegant and seemingly quasi-spiritual criteria for the Solar System: Kepler’s Laws.
Moreover, those right triangles for which he’s famous (yes, he’s the same Pythagoras of the Pythagorean theorem) may or may not be of "divine proportions," but nonetheless are the foundation of trigonometry, calculus, innumerable applications in almost every branch of mathematics and science, and the primary tool for the reckoning of space, two dimensional, three dimensional or beyond.
This recent confirmation of astral music plucked on a soundboard of the infinitely large comes while the search is progressing into the realm of the infinitesimally small for other melodies of even stranger quantum mechanical strains.
M-theory, unveiled at the University of Southern California in 1995, presents the revolutionary hypothesis that protons, electrons, and all other sub-atomic particles should be explained as simply manifestations of impossibly small strings — superstrings —performing an unattainable to even imagine set of oscillations in at least a half-dozen other dimensions beside the plain old up, down and sideways we all know.
It’s hard to imagine how these strings should ever be glimpsed, though, no matter in how many directions they’re pulsating, since to magnify one to the size of a dust mote would be a task equal to blowing up a hydrogen atom to the size of the Milky Way.
If superstrings exist, our concept of reality at its very heart is altered drastically. Edward Witten, the formulator of M-theory and the single individual most connected to the concept of superstrings, agrees. "Away from the safety of your home, the universe was not made for your convenience," he has candidly commented.
Modern scientists are listening to black holes colliding from distances too overwhelming to comprehend, and devising the mathematics to unify everything from the unimaginably small to the mind-bogglingly large, and that is of course awe-inspiring.
How much more astonishing it would be though should it turn out that the genius of the ancient Greeks — equipped with nothing more than plumb bob, straight edge, compass, and square — might have had it all pretty much figured out 25 centuries ago.
And for those parents determined that their children should under no circumstances abandon their violin lessons, you may take heart that your offspring are being trained in perhaps the only truly quintessential profession in existence: making music.
Everything else could be just the insubstantial echoes of the applause.
David Nabhan is a science writer, the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three previous books on earthquakes. Nabhan is also a science fiction writer ("Pilots of Borealis," 2015) and the author of many scores of newspaper and magazine op-eds. Nabhan has been featured on television and talk radio all over the world. His website is www.earthquakepredictors.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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