In his recent book The Jazz of Physics, Brown University theoretical physicist Stephon Alexander talks about the connections he sees between playing jazz and doing physics. Of course, there’s a long tradition of physicists being musicians: many are classical musicians, but a fair number play rock, blues or jazz. (There are also noted professional musicians who start out as scientists. Queen guitarist Brian May was an astrophysics Ph.D. at Imperial College in London, while American blues guitarist Elvin Bishop studied physics at the University of Chicago.)
For many, this is an example of deep play, an activity that is a diversion from their work, but also provides some of the same satisfactions as work. (This combination is essential for driven people who are obsessed by their work: it allows them to channel some of that obsession into another activity that gives them a break, and it raises the odds that this diversion will be something that they do regularly, rather than get bored with and give up.) In Alexander’s case, playing also provides a space for coming up with new ideas, as an NPR Code Switch piece relates. While on a postdoc
in Paris, Alexander was stuck on a problem concerning the early universe.
“So I shipped myself to the jazz clubs. You have to create a solo on the spot while conforming to some kind of structure. Well, physics is like that, too,” Alexander says. “In between sets, I would play around with my calculations or just think very freely.”
Sure enough, one night, he watched the audience applauding, which made him think about tiny charged particles slamming into one another – and the solution came to him.
This is a classic Graham Wallas moment, by the way: a bout of hard work that ends by hitting a cognitive wall, setting the problem aside to do something else, giving the subconscious time to let the idea percolate, and finally having a moment of inspiration (and then more months of working out the details).
This excerpt about hanging out with Brian Eno and thinking about vibration in music and physics is also great.