Laboratory Hosts Open House in Honor of 60th Anniversary

  • newswise-fullscreen Laboratory Hosts Open House in Honor of 60th Anniversary

    Argonne's Murray Gibson and the "Physics of the Blues"

Newswise — Science enthusiasts of all ages will enjoy the featured presentations that are part of Argonne National Laboratory's upcoming open house on Saturday, October 7. The U.S. Department of Energy lab is celebrating its 60th anniversary with its first open house in seven years. The facility will open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at its site at 9700 S. Cass Ave., near Darien.

Demonstrations across Argonne's 1,500-acre site will include a discussion " with live piano examples " of "The Physics of the Blues" . Like Einstein, Argonne's Murray Gibson is a physicist whose life's work includes finding patterns among atoms. The love of distinguishing patterns also drives Gibson as a musician and Blues enthusiast.

Gibson, Argonne's associate laboratory director for scientific user facilities, was drawn to playing the guitar as a child, and he later studied piano. His mother wanted him to attend classical concerts, but — being a child of his time — he preferred popular music. As a college student, he spent a summer in Chicago, playing piano at the Essex Inn for $25 a night. Always a jazz fan, Gibson discovered that his true musical love was the "gut music" of the Blues.

As a physics professor at the University of Illinois, Gibson found the perfect place to enjoy the intersection of music and physics. The university's science studies were mostly located north of Green Street — the main street across Urbana and Champaign — and the humanities were housed to the south. The Espresso Royale coffeehouse in the middle attracted some of the university's most interesting people in both disciplines, and Gibson met there regularly with his graduate students.

In looking at commonalities between music and science, Gibson describes the musician's palette as based on the principles of physics. He cites the musical scales that musicians use to create and play music as such a set of rules. What makes music interesting, Gibson says, is how musicians develop those rules and create ambiguity with them.

And sometimes, he points out, new rules must be made to allow creativity to grow.

Gibson cites the evolution of musical scales through the centuries as one example. The Baroque scale was used by musicians until the 17th century, when J.S. Bach led the use of a new palette on which to compose. He exploited the now classic "equal-temperament" scale that has permanently altered the sound of Western music.

A more recent example would be the creation of Blues notes that don't even exist on the Western musical scale. To create the new sound of Blues while playing in New Orleans' houses of ill repute, "Jelly Roll" Morton "crushed" notes, playing notes like E and E flat simultaneously. To the cultured ears of his day, Jelly Roll Morton's sound was crass and disgusting. But the more mainstream Scott Joplin, by playing those two notes right next to each other, had merely suggested the new sound and was thereby able to bring Ragtime music into upper-class drawing rooms — and ultimately into our culture's shared musical lexicon.

So how does the evolution of scales and the creation of new sounds by a turn-of-the-century bordello musician relate to physics?

"Blue" notes are very harmonic notes that are missing from the equal temperament scale. The techniques of piano blues and jazz represent the melding of African and Western music into something totally new and exciting.

All music is created by using principles of mathematics and physics. The pitch of a musical note is determined by the frequency of the sound wave — and that's physics.

Harmony in music is based on physical principles, and there's a harmony, a poetry to mathematics and science as well," Gibson says.

The sound wave comes from a vibrating object, such as on a guitar, violin or piano, or a column of air, as comes from a flute, a trumpet or an oboe. The frequency depends inversely on the wavelength of the vibration — the shorter the wavelength, the higher the frequency. For a vibrating string, all the harmonics, or overtones, are simple multiples of the fundamental frequency, or pitch. When you hear the pitch of a note, you are actually measuring its frequency.

What you get depends on how you pluck the string, but all shapes of a string are a sum of harmonics. The shape of each harmonic is a sine wave — a wave whose curve follows the ratio of the length of the side opposite an acute angle in a right triangle to the length of the hypotenuse.

And that's geometry, which takes us back once again to physics.

Musical scales involve notes that, sounded simultaneously (chords), sound good together. The result is the left brain meeting the right brain — a Pythagorean interval of overlapping notes. This synergy would suggest less difference between the working of the right brain and the left brain than common wisdom would dictate. The pleasing sound of harmony comes when two notes share a common harmonic, meaning that their frequencies are in simple integer ratios, such as 3/2 (G/C) or 5/4 (E/C).

For the great composers, of course, the harmonies and scales are a template — the creativity that the composers bring is what makes great music. While not all composers understand mathematics and physics, some do. Gibson cites Bach as an example of a great composer who understood the techniques he was using. The melodic line is intimately related to harmony.

For many musicians — and their listeners — the physics and mathematics of music are instinctive. When a musician learns music, he or she is unconsciously learning complex patterns of sound, harmony and rhythm. When really good musicians make mistakes, those mistakes are often hard to detect because they are so well integrated into the established patterns of the piece.

Gibson notes that harmonic analysis exists in both science and music and is in fact the basis of much science, including X-ray diffraction. The geometric quality of vibrations that make up music are harmonic in time. Similarly, the work of physics, such as at Argonne's Advanced Photon Source, which examines the structure of life itself, is focused on what is harmonic in space.

Gibson says that people who are drawn to science and art have much in common. Both disciplines attract creative minds. Both fields demand that their disciples master technique long before they can be great scientists or great artists.

Science, like art and beauty, is at its best when it is elegant and simple. Gibson asserts that the language of mathematics, as expressed in calculus, is the most powerful and beautiful language known to humans because of its basic simplicity. When a single formula is versatile enough to explain processes as different as an electric motor, lightning and the landing of a 747, that simple sentence is poetic.

Both artists and scientists rely on the principles of mathematics and physics, whether consciously or intuitively, to achieve their goals. And, at the same time, both science and art rely on the creative questioner to ask, "Why do we do it this way?" and "Why not try something else and see what happens?"

Admission to the open house is free, and bus service will be provided to take visitors between buildings. Food and drink will be available for purchase.

Argonne is located 25 miles southwest of downtown Chicago, just south of Interstate 55 near Darien and Lemont; the main entrance is off Cass Avenue in Darien.

For more information on the open house, call the Argonne Public Affairs Office at (630) 252-2525.

The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory conducts basic and applied scientific research across a wide spectrum of disciplines, ranging from high-energy physics to climatology and biotechnology. Since 1990, Argonne has worked with more than 600 companies and numerous federal agencies and other organizations to help advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for the future. Argonne is managed by the University of Chicago for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

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