Facts and Fiction

I just heard this statement on NPR:

“There are more and more studies that show that giving people information does not change their mind.”

And although that is somehow not new in itself, and has been particularly obvious in the news business and the political world, it did put it quite starkly into focus. Fact-based reality is indeed a very fragile thing. The times in world history when facts did have bearing on human affairs are far and few apart, but what was achieved during these periods had a lasting influence.

Western civilization still resonates from the Greek philosophers’ insight into the physical world. Most of the stars in the sky have Arabic names, reflecting the intense interest in the calendar and orientation of the early Muslim scholars a thousand years later than the Greeks. On the other hand, these ideas reached a very small number of people.

The philosophers and mathematicians of the Renaissance looked back 1500 years to seek logic and reason from those who came before to guide their thinking process, which led to an evolving view of our world. These facts-based success stories were not widely understood by many until the 20th century, coinciding with a rise of the middle class in the western world. This was probably due in part to a more equitable education and success of the technology issued by the fact-based science behind it all. Unfortunately, the mismanagement and corruption of knowledge acquired was partly funneled into armament (the atomic bomb is a good example), and environmental abuse, which opened a wedge for doubt to fester.

Of course this is simplistic, but these drawbacks were enough for other forces to gain momentum, and utilize this breach of trust to declare full war on the factual philosophy that we still need so urgently. We cannot solve these problems by burying our heads in the sand. It is worthy to note that this development coincides with a widening of the gap between rich and poor.

There is a lot more to be said, but the main concern I have is: what can we do about it? Can we make facts sexy? Any other suggestions?

Music’s origin

Imagine a long early summer sunset, and the only sounds heard are from some late crickets, and the crackling of the fire a few yards away. Venus is shining just under a young moon crescent. Other bright stars are slowly appearing, and the first to be seen is the brightest in the sky, which leads to the coldest parts. As the sky grows darker, a bright milky band shines from where the sun rises to where the moon sets.

A light breeze is blowing; you are thinking of today’s hunt, and tomorrow’s festivities celebrating the sun rising again at that point on the horizon when its path moves back to where it first came six moons ago. A big bird flies off of a nearby tree, and the coming darkness leads you into a dream.

The beauty of the still twilight inspires you to reach into the leather pouch you always keep close to your body. You take out your magic flute and start to blow into it; softly at first, recalling one of the melodies you heard at a gathering long ago near the big ice wall over in the direction of that brightest star in the sky. Then you feel the melody could sound a different way, and you go more deeply into the sounds you are producing.


Others gather: someone has brought a hollow piece of trunk, on which he has stretched a piece of abix skin held tightly by some wood pegs. Its pulse lays a foundation for your improvisation. Some of the people who have gathered around you start to move in unusual ways. Not walking, not running, not expressing a particular feeling– but just moving to the pulse generated by the sounds you and your acolytes are producing.

It is something new, these movements, that previously were static and meant either anger, love, hunger, or danger. But with these sounds you are producing, all of these movements become blended, in a complex meaning that is not so clear but much more nuanced. there were even some that were completely new. They must have meant something, but it was yet not clear to anyone; could it be that these movements could be combined into groups? Everyone was feeling calm, and someone even started making sounds with her mouth in a sequence, repeating the same sound over and over, synchronized with the movements and mysteriously related to your melodies….could that have meaning?

There is so much to discover and understand; somehow that evening it became just a little bit more clear. Definitely a night to remember.

This fictitious but, I think, possible scenario happened a Platonic year* and a half ago in what is now called Ulm in Germany, where Professor Nicholas Conard of Tubingen University found in one location three flutes made of bird bones.

“We report the discovery of bone and ivory flutes from the early Aurignacian period of southwestern Germany. These finds demonstrate the presence of a well-established musical tradition at the time when modern humans colonized Europe, more than 35,000 calendar years ago”.

Experimenting with the replica, he found that the ancient flute produced a range of notes comparable in many ways to modern flutes. “The tones are quite harmonic,” he said (they were pentatonic in nature: a five tone scale which skips the fourth and the seventh degrees of the diatonic scale). He adds:

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that music was a part of day-to-day life,”…. “Music was used in many kinds of social contexts: possibly religious, possibly recreational – much like how we use music today in many kinds of settings.”….”Music could have contributed to the maintenance of larger social networks, and thereby perhaps have helped facilitate the demographic and territorial expansion of modern humans…” his team wrote.

In fact, it is hard to imagine the development of musical abilities without the parallel development of spoken language. There are strong indications that language has its root in singing (I will develop on this concept in a future post).

It so happens that the Hohle Fels flute, as it is called, was uncovered in sediment a few feet away from the carved figurine of a busty, nude woman, which was also estimated to be around 35,000 years old. Now, I’ll let you make your own deductions about this synchronicity.
* A Platonic Year is 24,000 solar years. It corresponds to the period it takes for the earth axis to wobble, like a spinning top in one complete turn. This phenomenon has resulted in a shift of constellations. To an observer on Earth, Vega was the north star, and the Milky Way was flowing in a different direction.

The Power of Sound

Most of us understand that sound needs a medium to transmit itself, but not, at least in my case, that this includes any form of matter that constitutes our Baryonic universe. It turns out that this has monumental implications in how fundamental sound waves are in the universe we live in.

When I am talking about a ‘medium’, this applies to all matter in its many forms:

– gases, the most common of which make up our atmosphere in which sound travel at 1,235 meters per second;

– liquids, water from which we are made mostly, in which, due to its higher density, carries sound waves at 1497 m/s;

– solids of course of still higher density, for steel the most dense of solid, the speed is 5930 m/s. Another less well known form of matter is:

– plasma found in extreme invironment like stars or the early universe, but nevertheless does conduct sound waves, like other states of matter, as of the sound speed in a plasma, it must vary as in the other medium as the pressure or temperature changes I could not find a actual number, but I can assume that the speed in it is higher still to many magnitude. if you have the knowledge to figure out the formula here it is:


Baryonic matter, is anything that constitutes our visible universe, which is about 4% of its composition. The bulk of the universe is made with 23% Dark Matter, and since we do not know what it is made of, we do not know how sound waves behave in it; but since sound is so instrumental in the shape of the universe, there is no reason to think that it is not affected as well. The rest, 73%, is made up of Dark Energy, an even more puzzling phenomena but on which sound could help shed light.

All this brings me to the point I want to make: sound waves have an influence on matter of all kinds. They have an elastic or kinetic effect due to the slow rate of their frequencies, compared to the electromagnetic spectrum (light, etc.) which, due to the shortness of their frequencies only have influences at the atomic level.

What is the loudest sound ever created in this universe? Well, it has been very adequately named, as we are all calling it the “Big Bang”– just think about what it means!

The Big Boom, right? But we all have seen those science fiction movies with silent explosions, as being in space, there is no medium, so no sound. That is right, except for the fact that in the case of the Big Bang, it is sound that created the empty space. The Big Bang was infinite pressure, so sound must have traveled infinitely fast, its wave spreading to every corner of the young universe, pushing matter with its peaks and valleys in clumps and creating voids, engineering stars, galaxies and galaxy clusters, and somewhat its own demise– empty space or vacuum.

Now, sound is left vibrating, isolated in the islands of matter that dot the universe, where the original Boom still resonates from all directions. It can be measured and it has a name. It is called the “Baryon Acoustic Oscillation” or BAO. The following is a quote from an article by Richard Panek in the February 2009 issue of Sky & Telescope:

‘Early in the Universe, sound waves (“acoustic oscillations”) coursed through the primordial gas, creating peaks at intervals of 436,000 light-years. As the universe has expanded, so has the spacing between these peaks; today they are 476 million light years apart. And because galaxies tended to form on the peaks of these large waves, astronomers can measure galaxy distributions at different eras, allowing them to see how the peak spacing changed over time, and thus how fast the universe has expanded.’

This will help us measure the effect Dark Energy has on accelerating the expansion of the universe, and help predict its ultimate fate… And fittingly this all was discovered about forty five years ago with the use of a giant ear! (see picture below)


This is only the genesis of the much under-reported fundamental influence that sound plays in our existence that we shall explore in future postings, so tune in (you have no choice).

Welcome to this discussion

To every musician and scientist, this discussion is dedicated to you!

The links between science and music (and art to a wider extent) is by far not a new concept, you can actually hold an argument that they were united in most of their history, as science and art were both considered as philosophy. The root of the western scientific method can be traced to Aristotle who as he explored the physical world created the scientific method, which led him to study scales, modes and harmonic relationships, with the use of weights. from this it is not far to see the relationship: weight = mass = creative energy = emc2.

Yes, it is quite a short cut from one to the other; even absurd. But this kind of thinking is needed now, since the recent (about the past 100 years) trend is to compartmentalize the creative thinking process. But the history is on the other side. Besides Aristotle, Galileo’s father was a famous musician, Einstein played the violin and Richard Feyman played the bongos (quite well, I can attest, as a percussionist).

Another fascinating recent development, is the rise of techniques to study the brain. Neurology is opening a window in the process how music is understood by conscious and unconscious.

I think this is a fascinating subject, where there is still a lot of unknown that deserves to be explored. I also think that the answers can be explored by the people who are at the forefront of each discipline.

So please be open to offer your opinion and observations.

Marc Wagnon