Another science/music parallel

And this is one I shouldn’t mention, but oh well:

When a spectator who can’t play a single instrument opines to a practiced, professional musician and tries to tell them how they should have played a certain piece of music or what they need to do to improve, there’s also a scientific parallel there with the person who read a New-Age flavored article on Quantum Physics (BTW, that’s not what it’s called, and it is not capitalized) and is arguing with someone like oh, ME about the major algorithms governing the operation of quantum computers or whatnot.

In both cases, we’re glad people are all up in our chosen fields of endeavor. In the end, both music and science are all about communication and sharing, so it’s mighty nice to have people seeking out things on their own, having opinions about them, and being enthusiastic enough to talk about them with us.

However I must confess openly that in both cases, there is still a biiiig part of my brain that just wants you to STFU. (About piano or science.) And that graduate student you know who plays classical guitar and who is nodding and smiling blandly and politely at you while you tell him how to play better based on an article you read in “Chicks and Guitars” in 1978? He’s thinking it, too. Sorry. 🙂

Monkeywork and The Big Stuff — science, art, and talent

So as a further exploration of what I said in the previous post, I’d like to offer the following:

If you have the kind of brain that feels a stroke of pleasure when you do ABC, you will move past ABC and arrive at XYZ where

ABC ==

  • boring word and math problems
  • making teeny stitch after teeny stitch
  • doing scales and etudes

and XYZ ==

  • thinking clearly and meaningfully about the origin and fate of the universe
  • finishing a huge lace bedspread
  • playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto or writing your own music

(Basically ABC == “monkeywork” and XYZ == “the Big Stuff.” In anything.)

Now I’m not sure we have control over what strokes our brains. That, I think we are often hardwired for. Whether you get a “food pellet” over making a tiny stitch or playing a scale or doing long division … I’m not sure you have control over that. I often think that that is the fundamental definition of “talent,” simply having a brain that gets a zap to the pleasure centers by engaging in the monkeywork required to get really, really, really good at something.

If you have the “talent,” you will get that zap and find the years and years of monkeywork pleasurable enough to get beyond it and arrive at the higher levels of pleasure awaiting. If you don’t have it — if for whatever reason your brain doesn’t get a zing out of the monkeywork — you will not arrive at those higher levels, and you may come to the entirely incorrect conclusion that the boring, repetitive monkeywork is the highest level possible. And that the people who are on those higher levels are boring (or not “expressive”) because well … only a boring person could find pleasure in boring things.

You couldn’t be more wrong. 🙂

Science and art are one and the same.

I’ve been amusing myself watching videos taken on board the International Space Station on YouTube, interviews with astronauts and whatnot, and videos from the cupola, the dreamlike window-on-all-sides on board the station that faces down toward the world and through which so many beautiful images have been taken and subsequently shared.

I’ve harped on this before (pun not intended but I’ll take it), about the pointless polarization of art and science, championed so relentlessly by artists and flouted equally relentlessly by scientists.

I’d encourage anyone to poke around in those videos and discover how many astronauts are artistically inclined. In one interview, NASA astronaut Cady Coleman mentions her flute and discusses the things done by other astronauts to express themselves artistically — everything from painting to photography, music, and writing. (Her husband is an artist, a glassblower.)

And once again, I keep coming back to the extremely common opinion shared by many artists that “the sciences are not personally expressive,” as stated by one of my otherwise favorite musicians, Mark Wood — who, to be blunt, doesn’t know what he’s talking about here. I’ll try to address where I think this attitude comes from, and why it’s so incredibly wrong.

A lot of people remember science from their 5th grade classroom, where “science class” consisted of word problems and lists of numbers to add and subtract. “Science” in that view consists of answering questions and being marked right or wrong. No creativity, no judgment, just yes you got it right or no you got it wrong. And most of the questions asked frankly stupid and boring things like, “You are driving in a car that gets X miles to the gallon. You want to drive Y miles away. You have a Z-gallon tank that is three-quarters full. How much gasoline will you have left over when you arrive?”

Now, many career artists and musicians don’t exactly follow through past this point. They pass exactly as many “science” classes as they need to before ditching and never opening a math textbook again, so they never learn what science really is:

Science is figuring out which questions to ask in the first place.

Are you right? Are you wrong? Who knows? Maybe in 100 years, someone else will determine whether you asked a worthy question or not much less whether you answered it well. There’s a good chance you won’t be around to find out, though.

Answering boring questions about whether Farmer Jones can plant corn before beans on Tuesday is not science, any more than scales and etudes are music. They are simply the monkeywork that you need to do before you can even get near doing science. Like music, you’d better find some form of satisfaction in the monkeywork if you want to make it to the higher altitudes of either.

This is related to what I said earlier about how you need to find satisfaction in making each tiny little stitch if you want that monstrous lace bedspread. Similarly, you’d better get a zing of pleasure from those idiotic word problems if you want to make it to the Big Stuff, the more rarefied scientific life where you’re dealing with the origin and fate of the universe. Expecting to get more than a cursory “ZOMG liek woah” out of whatever Stephen Hawking said about the universe last week without powering through years of those crappy word problems is a lot like being disappointed because your two months of cello lessons didn’t enable you to play that cool Bach prelude.

It’s also worth noting that many people also confuse scales and etudes with music and come to the equally erroneous conclusion that music (especially classical music) consists of turning oneself into a trained monkey who hits levers and pushes buttons in the right order very quickly, and that one either does it “right” or “wrong.”

I’m about to get mildly judgmental now, so strap in.

The thing about most scientists is that we seem to be able to make the adult judgment that just because our childhood music lessons weren’t very creative, that doesn’t mean that music is just scales and etudes. Artists however, seem quite content to wallow in the 5th grade attitude about science for the rest of their lives, which mystifies me.

As I said above, science means figuring out which questions to ask. It’s only until one spends years and years practicing answering canned questions that one has a prayer in hell of answering the non-canned ones that one has come up with on one’s own, questions that are probably so nebulous that you can’t even tell until a century later whether they were worth asking in the first place, can be answered, or were answered in an edifying way. Those word problems that Wood probably hated in school were nothing more than the scientific equivalent of Sevcik, Hanon, and Popper. Yeah, they’re boring as hell, but only someone who never goes beyond them can conclude that they comprise the whole of musical experience.

And figuring out which questions to ask is incredibly personally expressive. One’s entire concept of how one relates to the universe drives these questions for pete’s sake, how they are approached, conceived, contemplated … everything. Absolutely everything.

And much like music, the first thing one wants to do when one conceives of a new question to ask is share it with others.

At bottom, both science and art are centered on how one sees oneself in relation to the universe, how one understands one’s relationship to the universe, how best to share that with others, and what new doors that realization might open. Also like music, there are no right or wrong ways to do it, only ways that are more or less edifying. (Now engineering? Oh yeah, there’s right and wrong there. If your machine blows up or falls over, you did it wrong. But even there, you learn things from your screw-ups.) And also like music, you may not know whether what you did was truly worthwhile until about a century after you die. And like music, people who do it tend to think and live it 24/7, without pause, for as long as they (we) live.

So basically … any artists out there who think math and science aren’t avenues for personal expression? Remember how quick you are to correct the misconceptions of non-musicians that music, particularly classical music, consists of just pushing the right buttons in the right order and getting marked right or wrong.

Science and art are exactly the same.

I think this is why so many scientists are also artists. Why so many artists are not also scientifically inclined, I can’t say. It’s always been mysterious to me how balanced the left and right brains are of many career scientists and yet how inflated the right brain can get without similar inflation occurring on the left among career artists. The corpus callosum seems to be a directional valve, allowing things to flow to the right but not to the left with equal ease. A very, very few artists disprove this, but they seem to be in the vast minority whereas nearly all of the scientists I’ve known have been artistic (and often musical).

Not to beat a dead horse or anything …

*thwack! thwack! thwack!*

The Mars Curiosity Family – The Oh Family on Mars Time

“David and Bryn fit into the Bay Area perfectly. Both were educated at MIT. Both also musically talented. I remember hearing them sing together. Both crazy smart, and David was a bonafide rocket scientist.”

“I [Bryn] have Bachelors degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Music. […] David has a Bachelors, Masters, and PhD in Aerospace Engineering. In fact, he studied propulsion and is a real rocket scientist. He also has a Bachelors in Music, like me. […] We met in the Music department at MIT. He was a tenor and I was an alto. We met in a little a cappella vocal ensemble that had about six people in it. We used to sing Renaissance music by composers like Victoria and Byrd. Of the core six members, four of us are married to each other.”

One more musician-scientist: William Herschel

William Herschel from Wikipedia

Now, my exposure to him is as as astronomer, especially regarding stellar temperature and things related to that.

Twenty four symphonies. 🙂 Early starter, with a musical family and of course the ubiquitous equally brilliant sister (Caroline Herschel) who has been totally forgotten by history.

One more nail in the coffin of the perpetually undead belief, beloved by many artists and few scientists, that the brain comes in two halves that never talk to one another.

More thinking about science v art

… and how many people are always shocked at how scientists are so well-rounded. This musing is of course occasioned by the Mars landing but has been ruminated upon by me before.

How many more Cliburn amateur competition winners with doctorates in chemistry do there have to be before we ditch the pocket-protector stereotype that the rest of the world seems to cling to? Even your humble blogger has a very, very hard science past. There’s the lately-ubiquitous Zoe Keating, ex-technologist who was able to blend her tech knowledge with music in a way that’s gotten her a ton of acclaim. Hell, even NASA’s skinny-Elvis EDL team lead engineer is a bass guitarist who previously aimed for a career in music. (Twenty bucks says that guy’s got ink.) Plus the various people I knew in grad school, lots of them. And NASA’s past crop of shuttle astronauts and their rock band, Max Q.

And yet contrast this with the number of professional trained musicians who are amateur astronomers, tech hobbyists, or at the very least not so eager to badmouth the sciences as uncreative and unimaginative, not “personally expressive.”

Scientists aren’t perfect. (Believe me, there’s a reason why fiction shows like “Numbers” and “Big Bang Theory” always make the most arrogant, dislikable cretin in the cast a physicist.) But in general, if you want a whole-brained human being, go look for one with a well-developed left brain. For whatever reason, one can’t seem to develop the left without the right also developing, although the right seems to be able to swell to galactic proportions without much inflation happening on the other side of the corpus callosum. I have no real clue why.

Every time I look around, I find more reasons to be proud of both my musical and hard-science past, and I find more and more connections between them.

I find more and more reasons to shout about my enjoyment of music theory instead of hiding it from the anti-intellectual crowd who erroneously believes that Mozart, Bach, and Chopin “just felt it, man!”

I find more and more reasons to be happy that I have one brain and not two, and that like most other governing organs, it works best when bipartisan.

Basically, what it boils down to is this.

Career musician: “I remember my science class in 5th grade where we just had to get the right answer or else, so science isn’t creative.”

Most scientists: “I remember my music lessons when I was in 5th grade where I had to just get the notes right or else, so I thought music wasn’t creative, but I stuck with it long enough to realize that isn’t the case, and I really enjoy doing it now.”

The only difference between these populations is that the scientists I’ve known had the good sense not to make blanket conclusions based on something that took place when they were 11, whereas the career musicians are happy to do just that.

Arts and sciences deathmatch

I’m tired of this. The next time some musician someplace proudly and blithely states, wearing a gigantic grin, “I can’t do math!” I’m going to remind them of how outraged they get when someone says, “You play piano? I only play the ipod hyuk hyuk hyuk!”

Stinking at math or science, much like being incapable of playing an instrument is not something to grin and claim with pride. If you can’t understand the universe or even give a damn that it’s so much as penetrable to understanding, how the hell can you possibly say anything of moment about it?

I also don’t want to hear about how the sciences aren’t personally expressive. Contrast my lessons on the piano as a kid, paint-by-numbers with the occasional yardstick hitting the side of the piano to keep time, with the physics classes I took where I could say to the professor — as happened multiple times — “I have another way to do that.” Instead of getting the response, “Well, Isaac Newton wanted you to do it this way, so I don’t care how you want to do it, you do it like he says,” I got back:

“Okay, show me.”

And I got it back every single time.

How many times do you think I got that response from my piano teacher, compared to, “Well, Chopin says to play it this way, so that’s how you play it.”

If you think math and the sciences aren’t vehicles for individual expression, I might submit that you just can’t do them very well. You’re not stating anything fundamentally true about these disciplines, you’re just excusing your own limitations. You just can’t do it, so you’re saying it isn’t worth doing and have no idea how. You can’t imagine the opportunity for creativity and individual expression in answering questions and more importantly, even figuring out what questions to ask which is the true purpose of the sciences, so you imagine that no one else can.

Oh but the sciences make bombs, I forget about this one. Not for long though, since most “artists” never fail to bring it up within about seven seconds of starting in on this useless topic. I’ve got two words for you all:

Leni Riefenstahl.

Musicians and visual and performing artists include Joseph Goebbels, too. You people have aided some of the worst and most murderous human beings alive through the earth-shattering power of propaganda, so don’t act innocent with me. Tyrants coopt artists, but they murder scientists. The blood of biologists ran like rivers in Stalinist Russia, Einstein got run out of Germany because they found him threatening, and Andrei Sakharov spent almost his entire life under house arrest. Scientists are so completely and utterly committed to the free exchange of information across all possible ideological and political boundaries that we’re usually the first people disobeying the edicts of tyrants and the first put up against the wall for having done so. An entire one thousand years of European history saw a flowering of musical creativity at exactly the same time as the church was choking the life out of anything approaching individual expression, fattening its coffers with the money of the gullible, and starting continent-wide wars while lighting up scientists like matchsticks left and right.

For every musician I’ve heard proudly and stupidly proclaim that they can’t add 2 and 2, I’ve known five high-achieving scientists who play musical instruments, often at a very high level. Look through the profession listing of the people who win the Cliburn amateur competition. Look through that list for the past several years, and maybe you’ll stop being all condescendingly fascinated at how “wow, and he’s a surgeon!” “Oh look, how quaint, a mechanical engineer.” “Wow, an astronomer? Who would have guessed?”

I’m trained as a hard scientist, which should not come as a shock given my indignance over this topic. In graduate school, we had high-level pianists and violinists, one fellow who played violin, viola, and classical guitar, enough popular instruments for one entire rock band with every incoming crop of 20-odd graduate students, and a sitarist who was a fixture on Indian TV and globally renowned.

Take a stroll through the music department of any similar institution and tell me how many amateur astronomers you can find. *crickets*

Scientists and mathematicians can do what you do, sometimes better than most of you can do it, and the leeway for personal expression and creativity not merely permitted but celebrated in the sciences is leaps and bounds greater than that grudgingly tolerated in the overwhelming majority of classical music instruction. And yet the idiotic, grinning pronouncement most commonly heard by career musicians when this topic comes up is, “I can’t do math hyuk hyuk!” right before they start in on how narrow and limited the sciences are.

Looks to me like the narrowness and limitation are not located on the sciences side of the fence.