Perhaps you’ve heard that scientists were able to detect the sound of two black holes colliding this week, for the first time in history, which confirmed Einstein’s theory of gravitational waves. I’m not going to pretend that I understand in the slightest what exactly that means for quantum physics, but I did want to take a slightly more humanitarian (and, in my opinion, just plain fascinating) detour on the subject: the registered pitch of the collision ended on Middle C.
Middle C, in the world of music, is the fundamental note for most concert instruments. It is where we all begin as children; it is the first note we recognize on the piano, and C is the first chord many of us learn on the guitar. The C scale is the first scale we musicians all play, since it includes no flats or sharps. Middle C specifically is C in the middle of the piano keyboard, and is the anchor point for those of us who play beginner piano. Though it does not have the same significance on the guitar, I can assure you that C is my favorite scale (and Cadd2 is my favorite chord, if that means anything to you!)
My immediate reaction to this little, seemingly coincidental fact was amazement: how could it be that our perfect note was resounding deep in the universe, the evidence to Einstein’s theory? I figured that it must have something to do with the mathematical significance of Middle C, since so much of music is derived from math (if you’re interested, look into Plato and harmonics!). Unfortunately, I found that the answer is not mathematical; Middle C is 261.2 Hz, and has no significance as a tone other than its human construct as the middle note on a piano. It is completely arbitrary, and so I am forced to conclude that the “chirp” heard on our detectors was 261.6 Hz only as a coincidence.
Though I can’t draw any sort of mathematical significance between quantum physics and music theory (I don’t have the tools to try), this coincidence of sorts reminded me of the connection between math and art, numbers and beauty, science and emotion. We are, down to our core, mathematically and scientifically proportioned human beings, programmed, if you will, by specific combinations of chemicals. The beauty we see, even, is a matter of geometry and math in so many respects. Some of the most beautiful music in the world can be explained using set theory; some of our most astounding paintings subscribe to the Golden Ratio and other mathematical proportions. We, as human beings, are meant to interpret the world as beautiful when it is mathematical and scientific.
Some people are very depressed by this fact. Why reduce the beauty of the universe to mathematics? Why reduce things once incredible and awe-inspiring to numbers and formulas? I understand this argument, and sometimes I agree; the world does lose a sense of wonder if we try to box it into rules of math and science.
At the same time, though, I think the solution to this predicament lies not in ignoring the connection between math and art, but in reevaluating the connection. We assume that the connection between the two means that art is only the product of math; but what if we rearrange the variables in this relationship? What if we redefine math as the rules of beauty? What if art and aesthetics and wonder come first, and math is only a way to make sense of the universe as a piece of art, rather than the universe being principally mathematical?
We don’t have to regard the science and math behind our world as drying it out or making it dull; rather, we can use the math and science that punctuate beauty and art to give us a more complete picture of our universe as a place intrinsically designed to be beautiful. The question then becomes: did we as humans evolve to see beauty in the universe as it is, or was the universe designed to be beautiful for us?
I guess this is somewhat of a religious question, which I don’t intend to answer. My only point is that the bridge between beauty and science does not have to reduce the power of beauty, but can augment it, once we recognize that beauty abides by a pattern. As a species, we are so lucky to register that beauty on both a scientific and aesthetic level.
This is precisely why math and science are interesting to me. I don’t care much for formulas or the acceleration of particles in space; I don’t find myself caught up in papers about periodic trends or level surfaces. I love science as a method for understanding our universe as an ordered, patterned, beautiful place. I love thinking about the harmony and balance necessary for the universe to coalesce, for species to evolve, for me to be able to sit here and write this sentence.
Most of all, I love to think about the perfection of the universe- our ability to exist as life- and know that we will never be able to answer the central question of why we are here, where we came from, and what we are meant to do. The only shadows of answers that we do have come from two places: science and art.