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Science and Music with Professor Malcolm Longair

Prof Malcolm Longair

Cambridge Physics Professor Malcolm Longair joins us on 24 March at Kings Place as part of Turning Points: Space-Time, in which he unpacks Einstein's radical theories of relativity alongside game-changing music of the 20th century. We talked to him about his passions – both musical and scientific.

Can you remember the first ever record you bought?
Yes. When I bought my first record player, I bought Walter Gieseking playing popular Beethoven piano sonatas and a 10-inch recording of excepts from The Magic Flute.This was in about 1958.

Do you have an all-time favourite piece of music?
Not really. I love so much music it is hard to make any single choice. Probably it would have to be Wagner's Tristan und Isolde which blows my mind every time I see or hear it.

Do you ever listen to music when you work? If so, what do you go for?
I used to do this, but I find that I only use music in this way when the work does not need my full attention. This is pretty rare nowadays. If it is a boring repetitive job, I tend to listen to my more obscure enthusiasms the wonderful series of Hyperion Romantic piano concertos, lots of music transcribed for piano, such as the complete Beethoven symphonies of which I have now four complete sets, the complete Messiaen Catalogue d'Oiseaux and so on. To clear the mind, I use Philip Glass's Music in Twelve Parts. You will gather I have some strange, but wonderful enthusiasms.

Have you ever played an instrument?
I love playing the piano but not as well as I would wish.

What was the last live performance that you attended?
Rossini's Semiramide at Covent Garden wonderful evening.

Are you a contemporary music fan?
I love it very much. I am a great fan of Philip Glass and John Adams I have enjoyed greatly playing the Philip Glass Etudes. Robin Holloway is a good friend of mine and I often attend first performances of his pieces. I am also very impressed by John Woolrich who is also a friend. I like the operas of Thomas Adès, and so on.

And now to the world of physics - can you tell us more about your experiments on 24 March?
I have been mulling over the similarities between creativity in music and in physics for a very long time. There are a number of remarkable coincidences between revolutions in music and physics, and they are no more than coincidences.

- Beethoven's Eroica Symphony coincides with Thomas Young's understanding that light is waves.

- Maxwell's discovery of the equations of electromagnetism coincided with the first performance of Tristan und Isolde.

- The discoveries of special relativity and quanta by Einstein coincided with the first piece of atonal music in the last movement of Schoenberg's second string quartet.

- The discovery of general relativity and the changing understanding of time coincided with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

- The discovery of quantum mechanics coincided with the first pure twelve-tone music of Schoenberg.

Just as the musicians come with their instruments and perform the music, so I will bring my instruments and perform the physics. You should not just read what it says in the books let's look at living music and living physics. I will carry out some of the great revolutionary experiments in physics live, and set them beside revolutionary pieces of music from the same period. Physicists and composers both work within strict sets of rules and have to be creative within them. The great innovations come from understanding how and why the rules can be broken and lead to revolutionary new insights and opportunities. In both cases, the key ingredients are very hard work and imagination.

What would you recommend for anyone who wants to know more about Einstein’s theories and the fascinating world of physics?
This is a hard question to answer. Many people are doing a huge amount to enthuse young people and the public at large about the real significance of physics. The actuality of it is very exciting, but it takes a little bit of effort. But, in the end, if it seems strange or non-intuitive, you need to perform an experiment which demonstrates what is happening. So, I really admire the people who do this, but it is hard to pull off.

I think the simplest way of getting involved is through events like British Science Week where many excellent professionals make enormous efforts to engage young people and the public. Talking with real scientists is, in my view, the best way of beginning to see how you have to think to understand what we do. Once you are hooked, then you can start trying to grasp the trickier ideas but it is such fun and very surprising!

Published: 14 Feb 2018