The music of the spheres

For astrophysicist Priyamavada Natarajan, both science and music help us reach out to the sublime, and music is as much about moods and emotions, as modes of thinking.

Music, mathematics, and science have always gone together, not just in the physics of sound and the mathematics of pitch and frequency, but in the lines of inquiry that open up to cognitive scientists, evolutionary biologists, and the like.

Take a top scientist tackling the most advanced problems in astrophysics — like the mysteries of dark matter and the true nature of black holes — and a deep passion for classical music, with its notes, sounds and rhythms resonating and echoing with the most elemental forces of light, mass and energy over the vast infinities of space and time, and you get Priyamvada Natarajan, professor of Astronomy and Physics at Yale University, Connecticut, one of America’s most prestigious, “Ivy League” institutions, and the very first woman to receive a Ph.D in astrophysics from Cambridge University, UK.

“Music is very much part of my life. I can’t really describe it,” says Priyamvada from the US.

“There isn’t any real time aside from when I am in my office, when I don’t listen to music. If I am meeting students, colleagues, or reading, I actually don’t like to listen to music as background. But music is something that I am involved with when I am actually working on problems, it is very powerful to me. And I listen to everything and anything. I am always living with music.”

Priyamvada has role models not just from her immediate genetic pool (both her parents are scientists) but also from the pool of music, past and present. She is inspired by the personal lives of musicians whose genius and accomplishment equal the best in science.

As a consequence, she has a dominant musical self which she believes is as integral to her as her love for science.

Music streams ideas into her all the time, segueing into science seamlessly. And she firmly believes that in the brain they are connected.

 “The kind of neural activity that you can see in the brain when you do mathematics and when you play an instrument are very similar. And I think there is some real connection beyond just the general patterns. There is a deep connection with the level of abstraction that you have with mathematics and music — possibly more broadly with science, but definitely with Mathematics,” she says.

At the age of 17, after finishing schooling in New Delhi, Priyamvada went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – itself a rare accomplishment for a young girl in 80s India.

Priyamvada Natarajan is a professor of Astronomy and Physics at Yale University, Connecticut, one of America’s most prestigious, “Ivy League” institutions, and the very first woman to receive a Ph.D in astrophysics from Cambridge University, UK.

Before the move to MIT, at a time when “American global culture was not as prevalent in India as it is today,” Priyamvada, with her good singing voice had learnt not only Karnatic and Hindustani music, but also dance.

“When I was growing up I was very much rooted in Indian traditions. I loved MS Subbulakshmi, whom I worshipped. I listened to ghazals, I listened to Farida Kahnum, one of my favourite singers,” she says.

After landing at MIT, she made time for music, even as she gained rapid strides in the field of astrophysics.  If, even today, women are rare in science, they are even rarer in astrophysics — her professors and peers recognised early her facility for large numbers and abstract problems, her succumbing to the “allure of the night sky,” and the unique yearning to enquire into the deep mysteries of outer space, far away from the conflicts and drudgeries of mundane existence.

She enrolled for a music appreciation class and also started to learn to play the piano. Life at MIT was also about adjusting to a very different culture. She coped with the transition by getting into Western classical music and opera.

“I landed in an extremely high-brow culture with these deeply intellectual people. So I had to find out — what were the bones of this culture, what it was about. I believe music is a cameo of any culture. And so I dove into Western classical music.”

Modes and moods

Today, depending on the work she is doing, Priyamvada picks the music. She is comfortable in dealing with phenomena involving large time scales and distances that cannot be apprehended by the senses. Frequently, the calculations she is tackling are the mechanical kind, a series of never-ending steps, where she knows what the next step is but not the final answer.  In such cases she listens to music that is “very agitato, very brisk.”

Then there are the bigger challenges, where en route to discoveries and new answers, the problem has to be first set up.

“You don’t even know if you can solve this, and you don’t know how to pose it — and that’s where, for a lot of the work that I do, there’s creativity.”  At such times, she gravitates to more measured, reflective, music.

“So for every mood when I work, or when I am thinking, there are particular kinds of music, I almost use music as a priming cue for myself not just in terms of mood but beyond that — into a mode of thinking.”

Priyamvada is being noticed for her key contributions to two of the most challenging problems in cosmology — mapping the distribution of dark matter and tracing the growth history of black holes. Dark matter and dark energy dominate the universe, but we know very little about it, beyond seeing its effects and influences. It has a lot to do with going beyond what we can deal with directly. Just like in music.

 “Music has the ability to transport one, to transcend your day to day life and to feel and live in a way that is beyond the mundane. I feel music of every kind is very sublime,” she declares.

And so is work, when one is deeply connected to it. “I have the same sensation when I do the work that I do. Part of the motivation for the things that I do… like working with these large numbers in the cosmos, is that I like to be transported away from the earth. I don’t like the world the way it is — inequitable, unjust, messy. One of the attractions is that my work offers an escape from this sort of messy, conflict-ridden world, to this sublime place, with the numbers that I deal with. To me music does something very, very similar. It transports me to different realms and definitely affects my state of mind.”

She decided very early not to get confined by traditions, which abound even in science, and instead went on to be among the few women to “map the detailed distribution of dark matter in the universe, exploiting the bending of light en-route to us from distant galaxies”.

Musically she has tried to imbibe and learn from every form she has come into contact with. When she moved from MIT to Cambridge, UK for her PhD, she again went into a very traditional culture.

“That was when I got started in opera. Earlier, I had gone to Europe as an undergraduate and I went to all the opera houses, I went to La Scala and listened to Pavarotti. I went to every opera house in every city I went to as I had a Euro rail pass.”

After coming back to America, she got into jazz in a big way, because there were a “lot of things happening in jazz.” One of the fresh new voices in jazz, pianist Vijay Iyer, whose music she enjoys, is both a friend and fellow physicist.

Despite the moving around… all the flux, she says there are some pieces of music that will always stay with her. One is raga Hamsadhwani, “a ragam whose very meaning – sound of the swans- is as beautiful as its sound. It is the same ragam in both Hindustani and Karnatic traditions. That to me is part of the appeal. Plus it is one of the most sublime ragams I have ever heard. It sounds beautiful in the voice. It sounds beautiful in any instrument that you play.”

Then there is Bach’s Chello suite. “If I am ever really really down all I have to do is to really play that. It lifts my mood.”

Scientists need to question the status quo all the time …that makes for progress. In music, classical music, tradition is a sacrosanct.

“Science by its very nature is a very different beast. Science is provisional. Science isn’t fixed in the way sampradaya and traditions are for either musical traditions or dance. Our state of understanding of any phenomenon in science really depends on data and empirical observations. With more accurate data your current understanding is likely to shift. It can either refine your current understanding or it may completely upend a theory… show the need for a completely new theory.”

In some ways, she believes however, music is similar.

There are some things about sampradaya which are “worth continuing and keeping alive obviously and probably there should always be a set of proponents who are guarding traditions. But at the same time you need variations; you need room for improvisation, because in an art form, as we have seen with a lot of art forms, if there isn’t room for improvisation, the art starts to die out. It’s hard for the next generation to feel no room for creativity because every time you perform that is a creative act, even though the notes are enshrined, the ragam is specified and all of that. Your rendition is a creative act, but to not have room beyond that, to improvise, I think is restrictive. “

Allowing for improvisation will also change audiences. “One of the things that I find, when I come for concerts to India in the winters, is that a lot of the younger people are not there in the audience. I think we need to reclaim them, get them back.”

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