shred (ʃrɛd), verb (intransitive, slang): to play an electric guitar using sets of notes in a way that produces a sound that is distorted (i.e. strange and sometimes unpleasant) –
a rather dubious definition, courtesy of the Cambridge English Dictionary.
I think it’s safe to say that heavy-metal music is popularly perceived to be neither cerebrally challenging nor an especially highbrow form of art. Indeed, for most outside the subculture, it’s essentially noise for Neanderthals. Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, is believed to be one of humanity’s towering intellectual achievements. In fact, it’s so conceptually demanding that even if you think you understand it, you supposedly don’t.
So what happens when the brawn of metal meets the brains of quantum physics? That’s a question I’ve been intensively researching ever since I was invited by the Institute of Physics more than a decade ago to contribute to its (now sadly defunct) physicsfocus blog. Although I’d always had a keen interest in writing, I hadn’t blogged previously and wasn’t entirely certain how to best position my posts. So, I followed the standard advice – write what you know.
Superposing my twin obsessions of metal and physics, in 2013 I penned a piece in which I tried to explain the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in the context of the chugging guitars of Metallica, Megadeth, Opeth et al. Writing it was so much fun – it’s all just applied Fourier analysis, after all – that the metal-quantum nexus became the theme of an entire book. When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11: Or How to Explain Quantum Physics with Heavy Metal was duly published in 2018.
But could we push the mash-up of metal and quantum physics beyond 11, to an ear-shattering 12 on the volume dial? Instead of just writing about the connections, why not embed quantum concepts directly, from the bottom up, in a metal song? Let’s derive the riffs, rhythms and lyrics from physics equations, constants and theories. Should the multiverse exist, there was always going to be a universe in which “quantum metal” exists, and it might as well be this one.
The resulting song, “Shut Up and Calculate”, was recently published on the Sixty Symbols YouTube channel, which is a collaboration between the filmmaker/video journalist Brady Haran and physicists at the University of Nottingham. (In fact, the title of this article was lifted directly from a comment left by a viewer under the video – so thank you @muusers.) I should admit that Brady has indulged me previously when it comes to metal–maths links after we collaborated with Dave Brown on a golden-ratio-inspired song in 2012 for Brady’s Numberphile channel.
Could we push the mash-up of metal and quantum physics beyond 11, to an ear-shattering 12 on the volume dial?
With “Shut Up and Calculate”, however, we wanted to push the metal–science envelope much further so that not only would the song be driven by a musical encoding of quantum concepts but that physics undergraduates, teachers and researchers would also be directly involved in its creation. A huge thank you therefore to filmmaker Sean Riley, who’s usually behind the Computerphile camera, for his inspired editing of gaggles of gigabytes of footage to produce the final Sixty Symbols video. Ear-splittingly loud thanks are also due to David Domminney Fowler – guitarist with the Australian Pink Floyd (look ’em up if you’re a Floyd fan), producer, sound engineer, occasional Computerphile contributor and self-confessed uber-geek – for mixing the song.
The song features bass playing from James Theobald – head of physics at the Minster School in Southwell, Nottinghamshire – along with a guitar solo from Chris Morley, a quantum technologies postdoc at Nottingham. Midway through the song there’s a “choir” of Nottingham undergrads chanting “This is the root of all things” under a reading of a key passage from Paul Dirac’s genre-defining 1930 classic The Principles of Quantum Mechanics.
When it came to choosing a title and chorus for the song, there really was no other choice. It had to be “Shut Up And Calculate”– the perennial admonition to physics undergrads when it comes to getting to grips with quantum mechanics. If you want to know how we hid quantum equations and concepts in the song, all the gory details are on my Symptoms Of The Universe blog. Briefly, here are just a few of the physics-metal mappings we used. The opening riffs are a mapping of the digits (in SI units) of ħ/2m (guitar panned left) and ħ (panned right) to the notes of a C harmonic minor scale, encoding constants in the time-dependent Schrödinger equation. These riffs are undercut by drum-bass accents that follow a 1, 4, 9, 16 sequence, i.e. matching the energy eigenvalues for an infinite 1D potential well.
The ability to connect with different audiences was a key motivation for this new song
Under the chorus there’s a repeated 6..6..2..6..0..7 bass-drum pattern, punctuated by the snare, which represents the first few digits of Planck’s constant, h. This pattern flips to snare beats punctuated by the bass drum after Morse code for “e to i pi” (i.e. eiπ) – a phase shift of 180 degrees – sounds in the mid-section of the song. I did say that we took the quantum-metal thing to far beyond 11!
After we uploaded the Numberphile golden-ratio song all those years ago, one of the comments under the video that really stuck with me was: “I think you’ve just made me like math. Clever bastards.” It’s exactly that ability to connect with different audiences – who otherwise might unfortunately think that physics or mathematics is not for them – was a key motivation for this new song and indeed for my book.
Equally motivating, however, is countering the tired old stereotype that science is not creative. I believe there’s just as much creativity involved in setting up a physics experiment or calculation as there is in painting, poetry or songwriting. Crossing the arts–science divide, from both directions, is essential to counter this myth. And if we can do it through the medium of metal, all the better.
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