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Reading Diary: The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe by Stephon Alexander [Confessions of a Science Librarian]

Tuesday, October 11, 2016 4:57
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The jazz of physics, the physics of jazz, the chemistry of jazz, the jazz of chemistry, the jazz of computer science, the computer science of jazz, the math of jazz, the jazz of math, the jazz of biology, the biology of jazz, the jazz of engineering, the engineering of jazz.

And why not the jazz of history and the history of jazz? The sociology of jazz and the jazz of sociology? The jazz of political science, the political science of jazz. The jazz of philosophy, the philosophy of jazz, the literature of jazz, the jazz of literature.

And why not the jazz of religion, the religion of jazz, the theology of jazz and the jazz of theology.

All of which would make fantastic books, each and every one of them. Art and science are interrelated, inevitably interrelated really, when you think about. Humans exist in a world that can (contingently) be described by science, humans themselves being subject to that description. Art is something that humans do, so studying how humans do art is part of science. Science is the subject of art, and not just peripherally — witness the genres of science fiction or lablit for example.

Which brings us to the absolutely wonderful book by Stephon Alexander, The jazz of physics: The secret link betweetn music and the structure of the universe. A rare beast, a scientific and artistic autobiography. A memoir of discovery, both of jazz and theoretical physics.

The most wonderful thing about the book is how perfectly it fits in the “how I learned and grew and experienced the thing I became really good at mostly thanks to mentoring and educational opportunities.” Common in both science and art, with recent examples being Bruce Springsteen and Hope Jahren. I’ve read the Jahren and it’s also beyond wonderful (review coming, I promise) while the Springsteen is so new I haven’t had a chance yet. It’s an Xmas holiday read it there ever was one.

In fact, if I had to pick my two science books of the year, they would be Jahren’s Lab Girl and The Jazz of Physics.

So what kind of books are all these? Well, on the science side they are the stories of how someone became interested in their scientific field and the trials and tribulations of studying the subject, becoming situated in the culture of the field and, ultimately finding one’s place in that field, usually in academia but also in other walks of life as well. And of course, finding the kind of success in the field that will lead someone to want to write a book about that process. That description certainly fits The jazz of physics. Alexander recounts in fascinating detail how he overcame all the obstacles set before him and overcame his limitations and became a professional physicist.

But the book is also like a good music biography in that we also learn about Alexander’s immersion into the jazz field, how he learned to play an instrument, how he learned to improvise, the joys and challenges of the jazz bandstand. But uniquely to this book, Alexander can ultimately show us that these two processes are really the same. Learning to be an artist and learning to be a scientist are really the same thing, with similar obstacles and similar rewards, at least intellectually.

And most importantly, if there’s one message that I think Alexander wants us to take from his book and his life experiences, is that the creativity and mind-set that drive scientific and artistic accomplishment are really the same. That the dedication and drive, the improvisational and creative mindset that make a jazz musician successful is ultimately the exact same as will make a physicist successful. Musical or mathematical or physical or rhythmic, it’s really the same. Vibration, resonance, symmetry, the biggest and the smallest. It’s all there in both domains.

I recommend this book without hesitation to any academic, public or high school library.

Alexander, Stephon. The jazz of physics: The secret link betweetn music and the structure of the universe. New York: Basic Books, 2016. 272pp. ISBN-13: 978-0465034994

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