Harmonies of the Orphic Mystery: Emanation of Music


As the Buddhist sage Nagarjuna states in his Seventy Verses on Sunyata, “Being does not arise, since it exists . . .” In similar fashion it can be said that mind exists, and if we human beings manifest its qualities, then the essence and characteristics of mind must be a component of our cosmic source. David Bohm’s theory of the “implicate order” within the operations of nature suggests that observed phenomena do not operate only when they become objective to our senses. Rather, they emerge out of a subjective state or condition that contains the potentials in a latent yet really existent state that is just awaiting the necessary conditions to manifest. Thus within the explicate order of things and beings in our familiar world there is the implicate order out of which all of these emerge in their own time.

Clearly, sun and its family of planets function in accordance with natural laws. The precision of the orbital and other electromagnetic processes is awesome, drawing into one operation the functions of the smallest subparticles and the largest families of sun-stars in their galaxies, and beyond even them. These individual entities are bonded together in an evident unity that we may compare with the oceans of our planet: uncountable numbers of water molecules appear to us as a single mass of substance. In seeking the ultimate particle, the building block of the cosmos, some researchers have found themselves confronted with the mystery of what it is that holds units together in an organism — any organism!

As in music where a harmony consists of many tones bearing an inherent relationship, so must there be harmony embracing all the children of cosmos. Longing for the Harmonies: Themes and Variations from Modern Physics is a book by Frank Wilczek, an eminent physicist, and his wife Betsy Devine, an engineering scientist and freelance writer. The theme of their book is set out in their first paragraph:

From Pythagoras measuring harmonies on a lyre string to R. P. Feynman beating out salsa on his bongos, many a scientist has fallen in love with music. This love is not always rewarded with perfect mastery. Albert Einstein, an ardent amateur of the violin, provoked a more competent player to bellow at him, “Einstein, can’t you count?”

Both music and scientific research, Einstein wrote, “are nourished by the same source of longing, and they complement one another in the release they offer.” It seems to us, too, that the mysterious longing behind a scientist’s search for meaning is the same that inspires creativity in music, art, or any other enterprise of the restless human spirit. And the release they offer is to inhabit, if only for a moment, some point of union between the lonely world of subjectivity and the shared universe of external reality.

In a very lucid text, Wilczek and Devine show us that the laws of nature, and the structure of the universe and all its contributing parts, can be presented in such a way that the whole compares with a musical composition comprising themes that are fused together. One of the early chapters begins with the famous lines of the great astronomer Johannes Kepler, who in 1619 referred to the music of the spheres:

The heavenly motions are nothing but a continuous song for several voices (perceived by the intellect, not by the ear); a music which, through discordant tensions, through sincopes [sic] and cadenzas, as it were (as men employ them in imitation of those natural discords) progresses towards certain pre-designed quasi six-voiced clausuras, and thereby sets landmarks in the immeasurable flow of time. — The Harmony of the World (Harmonice mundi)

Discarding the then current superstitions and misinformed speculation, through the cloud of which Kepler had to work for his insights, Wilczek and Devine note that Kepler’s obsession with the idea of the harmony of the world is actually rooted in Pythagoras’s theory that the universe is built upon number, a concept of the Orphic mystery-religions of Greece. The idea is that “the workings of the world are governed by relations of harmony and, in particular, that music is associated with the motion of the planets — the music of the spheres” (Wilczek and Devine). Arthur Koestler, in writing of Kepler and his work, claimed that the astronomer attempted

to bare the ultimate secret of the universe in an all-embracing synthesis of geometry, music, astrology, astronomy and epistemology. The Sleepwalkers

In Longing for the Harmonies the authors refer to the “music of the spheres” as a notion that in time past was “vague, mystical, and elastic.” As the foundations of music are rhythm and harmony, they remind us that Kepler saw the planets moving around the sun “to a single cosmic rhythm.” There is some evidence that he had association with a “neo-Pythagorean” movement and that, owing to the religious-fomented opposition to unorthodox beliefs, he kept his ideas hidden under allegory and metaphor.

Shakespeare, too, phrases the thought of tonal vibrations emitted by the planets and stars as the “music of the spheres,” the notes likened to those of the “heavenly choir” of cherubim. This calls to mind that Plato’s Cratylus terms the planets theoi, from theein meaning “to run, to move.” Motion does suggest animation, or beings imbued with life, and indeed the planets are living entities so much grander than human beings that the Greeks and other peoples called them “gods.” Not the physical bodies were meant, but the essence within them, in the same way that a human being is known by the inner qualities expressed through the personality.

When classical writers spoke of planets and starry entities as “animals” they did not refer to animals such as we know on Earth, but to the fact that the celestial bodies are “animated,” embodying energies received from the sun and cosmos and transmitted with their own inherent qualities added.

Many avenues open up for our reflection upon the nature of the cosmos and ourselves, and our interrelationship, as we consider the structure of natural laws as Wilczek and Devine present them. For example, the study of particles, their interactions, their harmonizing with those laws, is illuminating intrinsically and, additionally, because of their universal application. The processes involved occur here on earth, and evidently also within the solar system and beyond, explaining certain phenomena that had been awaiting clarification.

The study of atoms here on earth and their many particles and subparticles has enabled researchers to deduce how stars are born, how and why they shine, and how they die. Now some researchers are looking at what it is, whether a process or an energy, that unites the immeasurably small with the very large cosmic bodies we now know. If nature is infinite, it must be so in a qualitative sense, not merely a quantitative.

One of the questions occupying the minds of cosmologists is whether the universal energy is running down like the mechanism of an unwinding Swiss watch, or whether there is enough mass to slow the outward thrust caused by the big bang that has been assumed to have started our cosmos going. In other words, is our universe experiencing entropy — dying as its energy is being used up — or will there be a “brake” put upon the expansion that could, conceivably, result in a return to the source of the initial explosion billions of years ago? Cosmologists have been looking for enough “dark mass” to serve as such a brake.

Among the topics treated by Wilczek and Devine in threading their way through many themes and variations in modern physics, is what is known as the mass-generating Higgs field. This is a proposition formulated by Peter Higgs, a Scottish physicist, who suggests there is an electromagnetic field that pervades the cosmos and universally provides the electron particles with mass.

The background Higgs field must have very accurately the same value throughout the universe. After all, we know — from the fact that the light from distant galaxies contains the same spectral lines we find on Earth — that electrons have the same mass throughout the universe. So if electrons are getting their mass from the Higgs field, this field had better have the same strength everywhere. What is the meaning of this all-pervasive field, which exists with no apparent source? Why is it there? (Wilczek and Devine).

What is the meaning? Why is it there? These are among the most important questions that can be asked. Though physicists may provide profound mathematical equations, they will thereby offer only more precise detail as to what is happening. We shall not receive an answer to the “What” and the “Why” without recourse to meta-physics, beyond the realm of brain-devised definitions.

The human mind is limited in its present stage of evolution. It may see the logical necessity of infinity referent to space and time; for if not infinity, what then is on the other side of the “fence” that is our outermost limit? But, being able to perceive the logical necessity of infinity, the finite mind still cannot span the limitless ranges of space, time, and substance.

If we human beings are manifold in our composition, and since we draw our very existence and sustenance from the universe at large, our conjoint nature must be drawn from the sources of life, substance, and energy, in which our and all other cosmic lives are immersed.

As the authors conclude their fascinating work:

“The worlds opened to our view are graced with wonderful symmetry and uniformity. Learning to know them, to appreciate their many harmonies, is like deepening an acquaintance with some great and meaningful piece of music — surely one of the best things life has to offer.”


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