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An intriguing combination: First Science on Saturday lecture combines heavy metal and quantum physics

No physics lecture at PPPL up until recently has included electric guitar riffs by the lecturer, snippets from heavy metal bands, and a video clip from the movie “This Is Spinal Tap.” 

But that’s just what the audience got at the first of PPPL’s Ronald E. Hatcher Science on Saturday lecture series on Jan. 12. The guitar-playing physicist Philip Moriarty, of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, opened the series with, “The Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11 or How to Explain Quantum Physics with Heavy Metal.” You can view the archived video of Moriarty’s talk here

“Quantum physics is seen to be intellectually challenging and difficult to get your head around and heavy metal is supposed to be less intellectually challenging and less difficult to get your head around,” Moriarty said. “What I love about music is it opens up different audiences. What’s not always appreciated is how strong that link is.” 

Quantum physics is the branch of physics that studies physical phenomena at the atomic and sub-atomic scale.  Moriarity, who not only plays guitar but is a heavy-metal music fan used demonstrations and explanations of how sound from a guitar (or any other instrument) is created to connect to the fundamental physics that explains the behavior of the quantum world. 

The 10-week Science on Saturday lecture series, now in its 34th year, was named for the beloved engineer who hosted the event for many years. The lectures begin at 9:30 a.m.  but early birds get coffee and bagels and have the best chance of finding seats in PPPL’s MBG Auditorium. Overflow seating is available in the cafeteria. This Saturday, Jan. 19, physicist Steve Cowley, the director of PPPL, will discuss “The Magnetic Universe.”  

The title for Moriarty’s lecture comes from a famous scene in the film “This Is Spinal Tap,” the heavy metal rock video parody, in which the guitarist  tells the mockumentary director that while most amps go up to 10, theirs goes to 11.  “Why don’t you just make 10 louder and have 10 be the top number?” the director asks. “These go to 11,” the guitarist replies. 

Moriarty explained that he has a lifelong interest in heavy metal. But his day job as a professor of physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Nottingham focuses on manipulating a single atom or molecule using scanning probes. “We literally pull or push atoms across a surface,” he said. 

Music and mathematics

Music has always been connected to mathematics, Moriarty said. He quoted the 17th century polymath Gottfried Wilhem Leibniz, the founder of calculus, who said, “Music is the pleasure that the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.” 

One of the most interesting questions to explore in music Moriarty said, is why the same note played by different instruments sounds so different. To demonstrate this, Moriarty played a video of Axl Rose, the lead singer of the heavy metal band Guns and Roses whistling an A sharp from the song “Patience.” He then played the same note on the guitar. The explanation for why they sound different can be found by analyzing the sound waves produced through a mathematical technique called Fourier analysis, developed by the 18th century mathematician and physicist Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier.   

Fourier’s technique turns a soundwave into its fundamental frequencies, as opposed to analyzing the amount of time the soundwave lasts.  Frequency and time measurements are reciprocal – they are two sides of the same coin. Moriarity used our common understanding of music to explain other reciprocal relationships such as momentum and position at the sub-atomic scale, which is explained by quantum physics. 

Moriarty’s talk got positive reviews from audience members like Guy Vinopal, of Monroe Township, New Jersey. “I enjoyed it,” he said. “I’m a musician, not a scientist. It allowed me a different understanding than I had.” 

“It was very good,” said Megan Hughes, 18, a senior at Northern Burlington High School, who was at Science on Saturday for the first time. “I think it was very easy to understand.” 

Among the audience members were three generations of one family. Carol and Ed Molengraft of Holland, Pennsylvania, came with their son-in-law David Sinn, of Trevose, Pennsylvania, and their grandson Devin Sinn, 14, a freshman at Neshaminy High School in Langhorne. “We’ve been coming here since 1992,” Molengraff said. “All of our kids came here through high school.” 

John Roeder, of West Windsor, a physics teacher at The Calhoun School in New York City, has also been coming to the lectures for decades. He recalled seeing astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, now the director of the Hayden Planetarium, give a lecture about the Big Bang. “He had everyone eating out of his hand,” Roeder recalled. 

Arnesh Kundu, 10, of West Windsor, a student at the Village School, won a copy of Moriarty’s book, for asking a good question. “I really like going to the lectures,” he said. “I like science and I learn a lot of new things.” 

A full schedule of the lecture series is available here. Adult visitors must show an official ID. If you are not able to make it to the lecture, you can watch it live here. If a lecture is canceled due to inclement weather, a message will be left on the Science on Saturday Hotline at 609-243-2121.

U.S. Department of Energy
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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