Saturday, 23 March 2013

A Rather Uncertain Carl Sagan Dance Party #14

Wener Heisenberg's uncertainty principal, a fundamental law of quantum mechanics, states that indeterminacy is inherent to the laws of physics. There are pairs of physical variables that observers are inevitably unable to quantify simultaneously. They include, as examples, position and momentum or energy and time. As one measures the first quality in these pairs the second becomes more difficult to ascertain, and the sum of the two qualities produces in an even wider margin of error. These errors of ignorance, it should be clarified, do not result from observers or their tools. They are innate to these relationship.  

As explained in Physics for Poets, "The uncertainty relations states that the product of the uncertainties of the two variables may not go below a certain minimum value. That means if one value is well-determined, the other must be assigned a larger error to make the product of the two uncertainties come out large enough (i.e. above that minimum value)."

Let's look at an example using position and momentum. One must know both the current position of an object (i.e. a planet or a nuclear particle) and its velocity to determine where it will be in the future.  Consequentially, if we know with good certainty where an object is now, we cannot determine its velocity and therefore cannot accurately determine where it's going. And if we know how fast it's going but are unclear of its position we're no better off.

There is a parallel here with music or rather the attempts to understand or comprehend music in a measured capacity. The more one thinks about music the less one feels about music. The more one tries to write about music the further one gets away from experiencing the ineffable qualities that make a composition enjoyable.

I'd like to share a passage from Wynton Marsalis' Moving to Higher Ground, which illustrates this point:

"Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth. That purity of feeling is what I heard in Coltrane's sound. His sound was his feeling….It's not easy to find words for the kind of emotions that jazz musicians convey. You don't have a name for the feeling of light peeking through the drapes in your childhood bedroom. Or how the teasing of a classmate hurst. You don't have a name for the feeling of late-night silence on a car ride with your father or how you love your wife's smile when you tease her. But those feelings are real, even more real because you can't express them in words. Jazz allows the musician to instantly communicate exactly how he or she experiences life as it is felt, and the instant honesty of that revelation shocks the listener into sharing and experiencing that feeling, too."

As one listens to music, chimeric ideas and emotions swirl around in the ether. One may know what the musician is getting at but cannot conceptualize, intellectualize or vocalize it satisfactorily. And the harder one tries to translate those aesthetic stimuli the less one really listens objectively to what's being played.  The focus changes from experiencing and enjoying art to solving a riddle that isn't meant to be solved.  

Admittedly, there is an uncertain or at least tenuous relationship between these two ideas expressed here: quantum mechanics and music comprehension. The closer I get to explaining in my head how one discipline relates to the other, the rest of the equation falls apart.  

Perhaps comprehension is altogether the wrong state of mind for matters of the sublime, such as cosmic building blocks or art.  Apprehension seems better suited.

The Anglican Archbishop and poet Richard Trench makes the following distinction: "Apprehend denotes the laying hold of a thing mentally, so as to understand it clearly, at least in part. Comprehend denotes the embracing or understanding it in all its compass and extent. We may apprehend many truths which we do not comprehend. The very idea of God supposes that he may be apprehended, though not comprehended, by rational beings. We may apprehend much of Shakespeare's aim and intention in the character of Hamlet or King Lear; but few will claim that they have comprehended all that is embraced in these characters."

As Duke Thesius proclaims in the concluding act of A Midsummer Night's Dream, "Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, / Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend / Much more than cool reason ever comprehends" (5.1.2-6).

We should add quantum physicists and jazz musicians to that list, too.


For a Carl Sagan Dance Party, it sure hasn't featured much Carl Sagan or dancing. Hopefully that can be overlooked this week. At least the music is still thematic.

John Coltrane - "Stardust," Stardust, Prestige, 1963

Discogs: Stardust

Sun Ra And His Intergalactic Myth Science Solar Arkestra - "Door of the Cosmos," Sleeping Beauty, El Saturn Records, 1979.

Discogs: Sleeping Beauty

Lonnie Liston Smith - "Astral Travelling," Astral Travelling, Flying Dutchman, 1973

Discogs: Astral Travelling

If that's not enough deep space for you, the blog Adventure-Equation, which devotes itself to all things Sun Ra, has a six-part fourteen-hour retrospective of the Arkestra's intergalactic mysteries.

Link: Adventure Equation's Fourteen Hour Sun Ra Retrospective

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