Books editor’s blog: a riff on physics that shreds boundaries

Philip Moriarty explains quantum mechanics with heavy metal music in

August 2, 2018
Judas Priest band
Source: Getty

A few years ago, recalls physics professor Philip Moriarty, he “worked with a very talented musician called Dave Brown… on a metal song whose riffs, rhythms and, um, rlyrics (© D. Brown) were derived from the fundamental constant known as the golden ratio”. When they uploaded their “ math-metal mash-up ” to YouTube, he was “absolutely delighted” by a comment reading: “I think you just tricked me into liking math. Clever bastards.”

Moriarty has long used music and manipulated sound samples in his undergraduate teaching at the University of Nottingham. Expanding on that, his new book, When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11 (BenBella), boldly sets out to “explain quantum physics with heavy metal”.

This partly reflects his own passions. For Moriarty, “there’s nothing quite like the sense-bludgeoning experience of a heavy metal gig. The all-enveloping power of the music, the theatrics, the histrionics…” Yet he hopes that the book will appeal well beyond the tribe or tribes of “metal-loving physicists” and “physics-loving metalheads”. And that is because he believes that there are genuine, illuminating connections between the two domains that “simply have not received anything like the attention they deserve”.

Given that quantum physics is “in essence a theory of waves”, there is an obvious link to music. But although some of what Moriarty wants to talk about would apply to everything from glam rock to Gregorian chant, he is firmly convinced that “the stylings of heavy metal take these connections to another level entirely: chugging guitars, choked cymbals, artificial harmonies, and mosh pits each have their own parallels within the physics of the ultrasmall…Metal music is perfectly placed when it comes to crossing that age-old (and very silly) divide between the arts/humanities and the sciences.”

Needless to say, Moriarty is well aware of the stereotypes: that “quantum physics has a reputation for being conceptually challenging”, while heavy metal is often dismissed as “music for Neanderthals” or excoriated as “the root of all evil (and, as such, a convenient scapegoat for societal problems whose origins are a good deal more complex than the lyrics of the latest Judas Priest album)”. Yet he remains undaunted and even makes it clear up front that “there will be maths”, given that mathematics has proved highly and unexpectedly effective in “explain[ing] everything from the crunchiest of riffs and heaviest of rhythms to the far-beyond-driven vibrations of atoms and molecules”.

It takes a certain courage to try to explain quantum physics to non-specialists, but Moriarty expresses “a great deal of confidence in the intellect and tenacity of the average metal fan (and the average reader in general)”. Now all he has to do is trick them into liking maths and physics, and wait for the reviews declaring him a “clever bastard”.

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Print headline: Riff on quantum worlds that shreds boundaries

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