November 3, 2009

Cosmic Reflection

The universe began with a bang 13.7 billion years ago, so it was no surprise that a terse bang accompanied a video illustration of the event. This sonic boom was itself just one fleeing moment in a narrated, 40-minute symphony, titled Cosmic Reflection, which debuted on Nov. 2, 2009, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Composed by Nolan Gasser, the symphony was his tribute to the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope in its first year in orbit. In words, pictures, and music, the composition told the story of the universe, offering a striking lesson in modern astrophysics and cosmology, from the big bang to dark energy and cold death.

Written by Classical Archives founder Pierre R. Schwob and physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, the narration presented the known facts and theoretical speculations simply and clearly—offering a model of accessible exposition. The poetry was in the music, played crisply and impressively by the Boston University Symphony Orchestra, and in the video images provided by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center: twisting tendrils and flickering rhythms; swinging galaxies and swirling tones; flashing stars and melodic fragments; cataclysmic collapses and percussive effects.

The large audience, blending the sensibilities of the arts, science, and engineering, gave the performance a standing ovation.

While experiencing the event, I couldn't help wondering what a narrated, illustrated symphony devoted to a mathematical theme would be like. Of course, astronomy itself has been a significant driving force in the development of mathematics. Isaac Newton, for one, wrote his immortal Principia Mathematica in answer to the question of what sorts of orbits would occur under an inverse-square force law. I wrote about these connections in my book Newton’s Clock: Chaos in the Solar System. And mathematics has been an invaluable tool for astrophysicists and cosmologists peering into the deepest reaches of the universe. So, mathematics could lay a claim to Cosmic Reflection, too.

What about the story of the prime numbers and the 150-year-old Riemann Hypothesis, a mathematical question for which the Clay Mathematics Institute has offered a $1 million prize for its solution? But that story isn’t complete; there is no proof yet, and no certainty that anyone will ever find a proof. And what images would you use?

Despite the pervasiveness of mathematical thought and its crucial role in underpinning scientific research, I am at a loss. What story, told in words, images, and music, could match the incredible epic that astronomers and physicists have forged from their observations over many millennia of spots of light in the sky?

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