Galileo Was a Kickin’ Lute Player

Your blogger (left) playing harmonica in a band consisting of professors and teachers.

Many well-known scientists over the centuries were also musicians: Galileo was a lute player (his father Vincenzo was a famous professional lutenist), astronomer and composer William Herschel played oboe, organ, and harpsichord, astronomer Caroline Herschel was a fine soprano, Albert Einstein played violin, the famous composer Alexander Borodin was a chemist. More recently, Nobel Laureate Saul Perlmutter is a cosmologist and violinist, and the lead guitarist from the glam-rock band Queen, Brian May, has a Ph.D. in astrophysics. (Presumably May knows that it’s conservation of angular momentum, not fat-bottomed girls, that make the rockin’ world go ’round, so artistic license must be granted.) Daniel Levitin has serious music and science chops.

The list goes on! If you include the musicians and composers who have found inspiration in science, whole books could be written. (In fact, I’m sure whole books have been written on this topic; I just haven’t looked for them. Leave your favorites in the comments.) The great science/art site The Finch and the Pea has a regular “song of the week” feature, and the rapper GZA of the Wu Tang Clan has a new science-themed project named Dark Matter, with contributions from Neil Tyson and others.

I played with a group in graduate school informally known as the Degrees of Freedom (we are scientists, after all), which was mostly me and guitarist Eric Bersch, but occasionally involved other grad students and academic types around Rutgers. Here’s a song we used to perform:

As you can probably gather, this isn’t a regular blog post, but rather a “I’m too busy to write a real post, so here’s a fill-in” post. So, here are 10 songs (if you’re on Spotify, you can listen along to the entire set), and below that are some other links. Can you guess what’s on my mind today?

  1. “Bullet the Blue Sky”, U2
  2. “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, Bruce Springsteen
  3. “Jonas and Ezekiel”, The Indigo Girls
  4. “Chamber of Justice”, Vusi Mahlasela
  5. “Subdivision”, Ani DiFranco
  6. “She Came Along To Me”, Billy Bragg and Wilco (lyrics by Woody Guthrie)
  7. “Why We Build the Wall”, by Anaïs Mitchell, sung by Greg Brown
  8. “On the Turning Away”, Pink Floyd
  9. “Strange Waters”, Bruce Cockburn (another song we used to play)
  10. “I Shall Be Released”, Wilco and Fleet Foxes (Bob Dylan cover)

Now, for links!

  • As Caleb Scharf points out, this was a great week for planetary science research, with discoveries involving Titan, exoplanets, and Mars’ moon Phobos. In fact, I covered three of these stories myself for Ars Technica:
    • Titan may have a global subsurface ocean. Bonus feature: something known as the “Love parameter”, which is a measure of how squashy a moon is.
    • Measuring anything about the atmosphere of an exoplanet is tricky, but researchers sometimes get lucky. However, this situation may get better soon: a team of astronomers has determined a way to use the chemical signature of atmospheric absorption of light to determine the orbital properties of the planet itself.
    • In our Solar System, there is a clear separation between the rocky terrestrial planets and the gaseous giant planets. However, that’s not the case for other star systems, and one has recently been discovered with two planets in neighboring orbits, but with vastly different sizes and compositions. I’ve named them Laurel and Hardy, but I doubt the community will back me up on it.
  • Phil Plait (the Bad Astronomer) provides some perspective on the possible discovery of a very massive galaxy that formed too early in the history of the Universe. The verdict: it may be a galaxy, it may not, but if it’s there, it will be challenging to explain how it can exist.
  • Have you heard of Salicia? I hadn’t until I read this excellent introduction by Emily Lakdawalla. (Short version: it’s an icy object bigger than Ceres, orbiting beyond Neptune.)
  • In honor of baseball season in the United States, Evelyn Lamb analyzed the knuckleball, one of the hardest pitches in baseball to throw and to hit.
  • And, more from Ars Technica: hot solar vortices! twisting light to achieve terabit transfer speeds! and a lumpy early Universe!
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5 Responses to “Galileo Was a Kickin’ Lute Player”


  1. 1 Thony Christie June 29, 2012 at 11:07

    Richard Feynman was a notable drummer.

    • 2 Matthew R. Francis June 29, 2012 at 16:20

      I was thinking: I know of a number of violinists, organists, guitar, and lute players, but only one drummer. How many scientists are drummers? Are any well known, besides Feynman?

  2. 3 Linda Lucas Walling June 29, 2012 at 12:31

    Yes, music and math are especially closely related!

  3. 4 Porlock Junior July 11, 2012 at 16:00

    Footnotes to this list:

    Galileo\’s father Vincenzo was not only a lutenist but a theoretician of music, who published an influential book. According to the usual narrative — I haven\’t read it myself — he was important in the development of the new musical ideas that replaced the Pythagorean mathematical perfection of Renaissance musical theory. For instance, it had been known since Pythagoras that the consonant intervals were characterized by ratios of small numbers, such as 2:1 for the octave and 3:2 for the fifth. Buy the time you get to 7:1, it sounds nasty. So, he asked, what about 1,499:1,000? Horrible sound, involving such large numbers, but in fact it sounds just like a fifth. (Warbling very slowly, of course)

    He also did experiments and was the first to establish the relation of string tension to pitch, which is a square-root relation. This may have been the first non-linear law of physics.

    History of Science speculations of the \”like father, like son\” category are left for the reader.

    And Borodin not only was a chemist but differed from virtually everyone else then or later in considering his music (such fripperies as Prince Igor) a sideline to his real work. He quite annoyed his colleagues (so \’tis said), who were trying to build the Russian national style, freeing it of foreign influences, which I presume to mean French. His friend Rimsky-Korsakoff visited him one day and found him in the laboratory, busy \”distilling a vacuum into nothingness\” and was not pleased.

    WordPress.com / Gravatar.com credentials can be used.

  4. 5 Porlock Junior July 11, 2012 at 16:03

    (Sorry about the typographical crap in there. The process of actually posting at a WP site sometimes gets out of hand. I do wish someone would invent a faclity for previewing or editing a post.)


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