Cosmos on the Mind

Philip Glass + Greg Laughlin, Steven Soter + Martin Brauen at Brainwave 2010

Philip Glass (left) joined astronomer Greg Laughlin for a conversation as part of the ongoing Brainwave series at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. (Photo: Michael J. Palma for the Rubin Museum)
Philip Glass (left) joined astronomer Greg Laughlin for a conversation as part of the ongoing Brainwave series at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. (Photo: Michael J. Palma for the Rubin Museum)

Scale is the first and last concept to dazzle the human mind in any discussion of the cosmos. And so it was this past weekend with the second and third Brainwave dialogues at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, which first paired astrophysicist Steven Soter with Rubin chief curator Martin Brauen on Saturday and then composer Philip Glass with astronomer Greg Laughlin on Sunday. In past years the Brainwave series has focused chiefly on pairing prominent figures from the humanities with leading brain scientists—this year, in a reflection of the current Visions of the Cosmos show in the Rubin galleries, the series includes dialogues such as these which both explore current scientific understandings of our universe as well as illuminate the fascinating presence of some of these same cosmological principles in centuries-old art from the Himalayas and elsewhere.

What may sound like tangents from the mostly brain-themed series turned out to be beautifully coherent explorations of how the human mind wraps itself around the incredibly vast scales of time and space in our universe. Both discussions this weekend started with what we know and what we don’t know, and then moved on to how we have in the past and how we can today represent that information—be it in a time-warping video of a flight through a digital simulation of the entire universe produced by Sotor and Brauen for the Museum of Natural History or in the translation of small ripples in the wavelengths of light emitted by their host star that give away the presence and position of distant planets, light years away, which astronomer Greg Laughlin converts into musical waveforms to generate true “Music of the Spheres” based on hard scientific data.

Two decades ago the planetary system we live in was the only known planetary system in the universe. Speculation of others abounded, but it was not until late in the 20th century that astronomers, using tiny changes in light coming our way from distant stars, discovered the planets that were causing these small oscillations as they passed between the stars they orbited and us.

Laughlin spent the first fifteen minutes of Sunday’s talk bringing the audience at the Rubin up to speed with this current state of planetary science. It was a necessary debriefing—a heavy passage of character development in chapter one—but as Philip Glass sat to Laughlin’s side, silently nodding his head in interest, a grand piano shimmering at the other side of the stage, the audience was eagerly awaiting the car chase everyone expected in chapter two.

For Sunday’s meeting with Glass, Laughlin had prepared the waveforms of our inner planetary system for the sake of demonstration, using data taken from the orbital behaviors of each of the four inner planets to create a sound waveform, tuning the note of our own earth to a low A. He opened his laptop, showed us the graphs and equations he used to generate the waveforms, then opened a sound file and played it for Glass and the rest of the audience.

Philip Glass listens as Greg Laughlin explains his process of converting astronomical data into sounds.
Philip Glass listens during Sunday's discussion as Greg Laughlin explains his process of converting astronomical data into sounds. (Photo: Michael J. Palma for the Rubin Museum)

The sound was an atonal, synthesized hum—which, as Laughlin explained, has remained the same for billions of years because of the particularly stable nature of our inner solar system. Later, Laughlin would adjust the parameters of the equations to show what an unstable solar system might sound like—say, if the Earth and Venus were eighty-times their current sizes. The resulting sound was anything but stable—an oscillating, chaotic flurry of chirps and dives, resulting in Venus being cast out of its orbit entirely; the doomed fate of an imagined planetary system falling apart over thousands of years heard here in a ten-second sound clip.

After all this, Philip Glass’ first question struck the chord that needed to be struck: “If no one is listening, is there any sound? Can we imagine a huge cosmic ear listening to this? I don’t think so. So we have to imagine that sound and music happens between the thing that makes the sound and the thing that hears the sound.”

So what does it mean to take the observed data from a star or planet and convert it into the narrow waveform that can be heard by our brain, a biologically-evolved, earth-specific structure that exists for a speck of time in the cosmic narrative? It may be that Laughlin’s music of the spheres is just another way to interpret data—a musical graph of sorts, a representation for us to better understand events over nearly incomprehensible timescales. By engaging another of our senses, these sounds can tune our own cosmic ears to a universe that can seem quiet and impenetrable as it marches across our sky.

Glass recently composed an opera about the life and work of Johannes Kepler, one of the originators of the idea of the “Music of the Spheres,” which saw its orchestral climax in Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite. Glass is interested in the lives of scientists who were as much dreamers as they were recorders of hard data. So the discussion on Sunday ranged from these historical interpretations of the cosmos in music to the work being presented onstage in the form of sound files on Laughlin’s laptop. Glass pulled the conversation towards the philosophy of what was at hand—the implications of translating such a vastness of time and scale into a ten-second sound file, and Laughlin pulled it towards the possible permutations of planetary systems and how that hard data would affect these sounds. The result was at times stilted– a back-and-forth that never quite reached a true dialogue, yet still danced in the realm of profound, cosmic truths.

Though he never touched the grand piano onstage, Glass’ curiosity in Laughlin’s work and the depth of his thoughts about these issues was inspiring for scientist and artist alike, and one would not be surprised if the music of the spheres, or at least something inspired by it, continues to rear itself in Glass’ own artistic output. These cosmic tones might be the final words in the all-encompassing minimalist language Glass speaks with his music.

“But that sound that we just heard was so bland,” Laughlin told Glass after he played the first clip.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Glass quickly replied.

The idea of representing the physical nature of the universe in music is not so far from that of the images representing Hindu cosmology which curator Martin Brauen presented during Saturday’s discussion with astrophysicist Steven Sotor in what was the most graceful and informative dialogue so far in Brainwave 2010. During the ninety-minute exploration of what we know and don’t know about the universe, Brauen repeatedly wove these Eastern images into the discussion, demonstrating that intuitions of concepts now discussed in theoretical physics—multiverses, infinite space, a center-less cosmos—were represented in beautiful visualizations hundreds of years ago.

Be it imagery or music, any of these representations of the staggering scale of this place we find ourselves in—illustrations that give you that deep, dizzying feeling of smallness, music that translates eons into a few heartbeats of our lives—are sensory experiences still charged with profound value in the 21st century.

“One realizes the magnitude and the size of the universe, and the relative insignificance of our passions,” Sotor said during Saturday’s discussion. “To me, if you internalize that, it’s an inoculation against any kind of fanaticism—it’s incompatible with that. It should inculcate a kind of humility. And I think that’s a good thing—the world needs that.”

Upcoming Brainwave events:

  • Wednesday, February 24, 7 pm: Is Feng Shui All in the Mind?
    Feng Shui expert Steven Post + neurosociologist John Zeisel
    The author of The Modern Book of Feng Shui engages with the noted member of the Academy for Neuroscience in Architecture on how we perceive spatial relationships.
  • Sunday, February 27, 4:00 pm: Is Meditation the Medicine of the Mind?
    Bon meditation instructor Alejandro Chaoul + cancer specialist Dr. Lorenzo Cohen
    Two doctors evaluate the healing potential of meditation.
  • Wednesday, March 3, 7:00 pm: How Do Our Brains Cope with Long-term Stress?
    Tibetan lama Arjia Rinpoche + neuroscientist Bruce S. McEwen
    A survivor of the Chinese Cultural Revolution talks to the Rockefeller University neuroendocrinologist about how stress hormones act on the brain and if Buddhist practice has anything to teach us about how we can control stress levels.
  • See the full list of events for more, and stay tuned to this site for ongoing coverage of the series.

About the author

Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a film director and curator, and was named a 2015 Salzburg Global Fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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