Friday, December 28, 2007

The Universe as a Song

To start off, here's a recent conversation I had with author Gevin Giorbran ("Everything Forever: Learning to See Timelessness") which relates to some of the ideas in this blog entry.

A direct link to this video is at

This time, I'd like to work through more of a poetic take on this way of imagining how our reality is constructed: The Universe as a Song. My song "Big Bang to Entropy" ends with this verse:

It begins as nothing, silence at the end
Every song's the same after or before
But the parts in between, there are so very many forms
More than we could ever hope to know...
So what we're exploring in this blog entry is the idea that a particular universe can be thought of as a particular song. Lots of people have at least some ability to play a particular musical instrument, and this idea works no matter what instrument you play. But this is also an interesting part of the metaphor, because each instrument has its own limitations and its own strengths: not every song can be played on every instrument. Bagpipes have their own unique characteristics that make them very good at playing a certain subset of all possible songs, but not so good at playing four-part fugues. Since my instrument of choice is the piano, that's what I'll use for this example, but the same still holds true: not every song in the world can be played on the piano, and the piano's strengths and weaknesses are what make it more likely to be used to play one song over another.

Okay, I sit down at my piano, and at this point I am still in the unobserved realm of indeterminacy, the multiverse of all possible songs. Now I play the first note or chord: by doing so, I immediately collapse out from all possible songs only the songs that start with that particular configuration of notes. That first musical "event" still defines a seemingly infinite number of songs that could have started that way, but that first event also has become a "binary yes/no" that, by playing that first note, removes all of the other songs that don't start that way.

I've remarked here before that I'm surprised at how often the following point of view comes up: some people believe that the big bang set in motion a certain number of processes that make everything about our universe inevitable. This includes our illusion of free will: according to this worldview, each of us is acting out a pre-defined script that cannot be changed. If I were to sit down at my piano then, and strike one note or chord, and let it die to silence (a la the climactic last chord of the Beatles "A Day in the Life") this single musical event would be a song representing that "hard determinist" view of the universe. All of the textures and shifting harmonics we hear as certain parts of the sound die more quickly than others would be defined only by the physics and basic laws of the universe: how hard the chord or note was struck, what particular notes were chosen, whether the instrument had an innately long or short sustain, what resonant characteristics were specific to that instrument, how reverberant the room the instrument was in happened to be, and so on: all of this richly nuanced interplay of harmonics and texture as the sound decays would be the inevitable result from the impetus of that single music event.

Since I believe that a certain amount of choice is involved in the ongoing creation of the universe and the world we live in, I'm going to continue now to the second note or chord of my song. This second event is as important as much for its placement as for what it is: as many famous musicians have remarked, the spaces between the notes have at least as much intellectual/emotional weight as the notes themselves. So, whether my second note is a few milliseconds or a few minutes after the first, that second musical event again narrows down the logical choices for what is going to follow, for what song I am likely to be playing.

Another worldview that is often advanced is that everything about our universe is random: imagining the spacetime tree of possible parallel universes that could have sprung from our big bang, that school of thought says we are on one branch of that tree right now purely because of a series of random occurrences. Those random occurrences caused matter to coalesce, life to begin, evolution to proceed, and so on. In the metaphor we're talking about here, then, if I were to sit at my piano and play a completely random set of notes of varying duration, speed, and volume, I would create a unique song, different from all other songs, and that would be the universe we live in. Since there are so many recurring patterns within our universe and our awareness, the idea of a universe that is completely randomly generated may seem unlikely to some, but even in that random song I just played there will have to be places where a certain amount of organization will seem to be evident: there will be places where more high notes than low notes happen next to each other, places where there seems to more or less density of notes, places where more soft notes happen next to each other, even places where the same note occurs several times in a row: that's the nature of randomness.

(However, since our brains are so strongly designed to crave and discover order out of a potentially overwhelming sea of incoming data, the idea of me physically playing a truly random collection of notes is most certainly impossible... but a computer program generating a truly random piano performance would still generate a "song" that had pockets of perceived order. Designing a computer program that rejects the next possible note if it is too similar to the one before would be a way to avoid these pockets of perceived order, but then the output would no longer be truly random.)

"I Can Name That Tune in Five Notes"
Name That Tune was an old game show where contestants had to guess what song was being played, and the competition was based upon how few notes a person could identify a particular song within. Continuing with our metaphor, then, we're going to move on to the third, the fourth, the tenth, the eighty-seventh note, and so on. Each succeeding note or chord defines the song we're playing more specifically, until there is no question that we are definitely playing one song and not another. Still, this is not the hard determinist song we are talking about: even if we are talking about something as rigidly structured as a Bach Two-Part Invention, there is still lots of room for interpretation in every performance of any piece of music. This also includes allowing for mistakes (randomness), and even the possibility that the performer will get bored and switch to a different piece of music half way through (free will).

In "How to Make a Universe", we worked through how quantum mechanics allows us to imagine the universe as a move from indeterminacy to a specific starting point that we look back upon now and think of as the big bang. By sitting down at a piano rather than picking up a set of bagpipes, I already defined a certain starting point for what possible song-universe I was going to select from, which corresponds to the choices for gravity and the speed of light that are part of the first few "notes" that begin to define a particular universe out of all the possible universes that could potentially exist out there within the multiverse, and that would be just as true for any other universe with different fine structure constants as it is for our own.

Let's look at our song as a recorded waveform. Before the song, we see a straight line, which represents the indeterminate state, the zero of no sound, no musical events. Then we see the waveform leap out in width to represent the very first note of our song. Now, whether we are thinking about the single event universe of hard determinsm; or the Dawkins-style universe of random notes which, through the nature of randomness, achieve a revealed order; or if we are thinking of a universe that has been created by some kind of conscious interference; in all cases these universes will share one other common feature. No matter what, that shared feature occurs at the end of the song, as the last note dies to silence, and the positive and negative parts of the waveform gradually balance each other out and we return to the same straight line of silence from which we started.

This brings us back to my song lyrics quoted at the start, and the ideas that Gevin Giorbran has described so well in his book: what happens just "before" the maximum grouping of the first yes/no that selects one possible song from all others, and what happens with the enfolded zero of maximum symmetry just beyond the end of the song (no matter what song we are talking about) are one and the same, and both are "outside the system" in the sense that Gödel speaks of with his Incompleteness Theorems.

We can think of that unobserved quantum fabric that is my way of portraying the tenth dimension, then, as being equivalent to the Zero that we start from. In our song metaphor, we can imagine that Zero as a giant ball that contains every musical event and gesture possible. We choose to start some specific place on the outside layer of the ball with the first note or chord, and move within the ball on a specific winding path as we select one musical event after another to create our song. Then, no matter how short or long the song was, and no matter how inevitable, random, or deliberately composed the song might be, as the last note of our particular song dies we end up back outside of the ball, ready to start some place else to create a completely different song.

A lot of these same ideas can also be applied to thinking of any particular person's life as being a song: this is one of the ideas I touch on in my book as well. Whether we are talking about the overall duration of the universe, or the tiny line that one person's life draws through the probability space of available choices from birth to death, the concepts are similar, and fun to imagine.

In the above video conversation with Gevin Giorbran, I tell him that his book caused me to rewrite the chorus of my song Big Bang to Entropy. The idea that our universe is destined to end in a meaningless heat death of maximum entropy is what many scientists still propose. The idea that the end of the universe is a return to the enfolded timelessness of maximum symmetry and absolute zero is, I believe, a much more satisfying answer and the one that will eventually be accepted by mainstream science. As I say to Gevin, the chorus for this song used to be just the phrase "Big bang to entropy" repeated three times, but that is no longer the case: now the chorus is "Big bang to entropy/Big bang to symmetry/Big bang to everything". So, to finish off, here is a new video for the revised lyrics version of my song "Big Bang to Entropy", as performed by Ron Scott.

A link to this video can be found at

Enjoy the journey,

Rob Bryanton

No comments:

Tenth Dimension Vlog playlist