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Thursday, March 29, 2018

The mathematics of music | Perspective - Honi Soit

"Full STEAM ahead" inform author, Lena Wang - Honi Soit.

Photo: Honi Soit

The divide between USyd arts and STEM students is both literal and metaphorical. Engo grill and PNR Hub, the cornerstones of the engineering faculty, lie far away from the light-filled, wooden interiors of Courtyard. The metaphorical divide, however, manifests itself as a subtle, simmering contempt, grounded in stereotypes. Science and engineering students bemoan the relative freedom and relaxation of arts students while dragging their feet to 20+ contact hours a week. Arts students bemoan the starting salaries of chemical engineers.

But this divide is a superficial one. Arts and sciences are just two fields of study, each  hoping to accomplish the same simple thing with differing methodologies: to understand the mechanisms of the world. Arts and the humanities do this by interrogating culture, using language. Science does this by modelling the world, using mathematics. Jupiter, then, is a gaseous giant and also a mythological giant. Metaphysics and physics parallel each other in thought, if not in practice. And both reveal facets of the same phenomena.

Photo: Richard P. Feynman
Richard Feynman, one of the most famous theoretical physicists of the 20th century, once said that “if we look in a glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe”. He describes the physics it revealed—the fluid mechanics of the liquid, the reflections in the wine. It revealed geology, for glass is from the earth, and its materials can be traced back to their formations in the cores of stars. It revealed chemistry in the fermentation of the wine. Hence all there is to know about the universe is in this humble glass.

It is easy to see STEM, with its mathematical symbolism and inscrutable proofs as cold, technical, and removed from the everyday. But to view it in this way is to ignore the romance of the extra dimension it adds to the everyday, to glasses of wine, to arts and the humanities.

Music, for example, is a human creation that relies heavily on emotion, and subjective preferences concerning sonic aesthetics. And yet underlying music is physics and mathematics...

Science and mathematics reveal a world that is weird, uncertain, and inextricably tied to the ways in which we live and experience our environment. Learning science does not remove one from the world—it adds to one’s understanding of it. Any perceived coldness or technicality results from forgetting to augment our study of science with the arts, with humanities, with philosophy and politics, literature and language, and music.
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Source: Honi Soit   


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