Science at a Distance

In Their Own Words




"The musician is the complement of the scientist. The latter will superintend our knowing; the former will superintend our loving." Sidney Lanier, "From Bacon to Beethoven," Music and Poetry (1898).

An exact contemporary of George Washington, the Austrian Joseph Haydn was Europe's most famous living composer of music two hundred years ago. One evening in June 1792, during one of his two extended visits to London, Haydn inspected the forty-foot telescope used by Dr. William Herschel, the oboe-playing, composer-astronomer who eleven years earlier had discovered Uranus as the seventh planet. Haydn was impressed by this scientist's work and wrote in his diary:

Sometimes he [Herschel] sits for five or six hours under the open sky in the bitterest cold weather.


To me, this observation touches the core of what scientists do. When they are not teaching, reading the latest journals, seeking research grants, or raising families, scientists today are

  • (a) observing natural phenomena in our world,
  • (b) making connections between these phenomena so as to come up with theories or hypotheses that help predict events of various kinds, and
  • (c) carrying out experiments that test and, hopefully, prove their theories.

Ideally, the end result of all these labors of research is to make this a better world, improving life for everything that lives and breathes.

To do all these things successfully, a scientist must have personal qualities that are harder and harder to find in our age of "instant gratification" and "me first": inexhaustible curiosity, unselfish perseverance, patience, talent, and, if lucky, genius. The scientist must have a multifaceted, "flypaper" mind that can think on several "levels" at one time and forgets little of what it has observed. Only then can the scientist make that unexpected "mental leap" and say "Eureka" or "Aha!" while discovering something new about our world, our universe.


I am amused that the first scientist I ever "knew" as a youngster was the Dr. Frankenstein of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's famous nineteenth-century novel of terror. Frankenstein was, of course, the archetypical "mad" scientist so often encountered in science fiction and grade-B movies. Why, I ask, do we label such scientists "mad"? Probably this is because no one "in their right minds" has the incredible combination of qualities listed above for a successful scientist. Throughout Western music history, several composers have been similarly thought "mad" because their intense dedication to their craft diverted their thinking, time, emotions, and labors to a world apart from our everyday one.

The composer Ludwig van Beethoven immediately comes to mind. Beethoven meticulously studied and even copied out by hand masterful musical scores by earlier composers. For his new compositions he ruminated endless hours and wrote out innumerable sketches until he found exactly the musical idea he was seeking. For example, the seemingly simple tune of the famous Ode to Joy in his Ninth Symphony took days for him to discover, after throwing away many fancier, more complicated melodies.

Joseph Haydn, too, was a slow, methodical composer -- taking one month to write a 20-minute symphony or nearly two years to finish his 100-minute oratorio The Creation. Thus, when Haydn in his London diary expressed astonishment at Dr. Herschel's dedication in spending long hours outdoors in cold weather to observe the heavens, he undoubtedly appreciated this scientific parallel to his own dedication to the art and craft of musical composition.

One of the greatest, most sublime moments in all of Haydn's music is when in The Creation God says, "Let there be light." Suddenly the entire ensemble--orchestra, chorus, and soloists--surprises our ears with a resplendent C major chord that is unlike anything up to that point. To me, Haydn had learned lots from the books he had read or the scientists he had met. Indeed he understood, however vaguely, the fundamental significance of our sun for all life--animal and vegetable--in the world's creation. And for that musical moment he knew that an unexpected fortissimo chord would match both the sudden appearance of light and the sudden "aha" said by every scientist throughout history when he or she "sees the light" and makes an unexpected discovery important for us all.


I hope that we never stop training and producing new scientists who find their own "ahas," for without them we shall enter a gloomier world--one without fresh knowledge, without needed inventions and gadgets, without cogent explanations and predictions, without suitable solutions to new problems, without new cures for new illnesses. Indeed without the work of scientists our world could end. Without such "lights" of knowledge, darkness and chaos could return, even though beautiful music by living and dead composers went on touching the hearts of the living.

Bruce MacIntyre, musicologist and choral director
Professor of Music, Conservatory of Music
Brooklyn College (CUNY)

P.S. I am a musicologist, one who is trained in the "science" ("-logy") and scholarship of music history, theory, and criticism.




Science at a Distance
© 1998 Professor John Blamire