Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students
Harmony and the Universe
Harmony is a multifaceted concept that profoundly connects music, mathematics, physics, philosophy, physiology, and psychology. In classical Western thought, this is no accident: harmony, at its essence the understanding of how different combinations of tones may sound pleasant or discordant to our ears, was believed to be a reflection of a divine pattern governing the heavens, connecting music to geometry, astronomy, and religion. No less than the whole universe was at stake in the study of harmony.
Through these connections, concepts associated with harmony have guided millennia of scientific and philosophical thought. In this seminar, we will explore the evolution of our understanding of harmony and its immediate application in the function of musical instruments, and employ it as a nexus to understand its role in revolutionary scientific advances in gravity, relativity, quantum mechanics, and cosmology. In these explorations, we will examine some of the fundamental mathematical tools that provide us our current understanding of harmony. We will also see how some concepts surrounding harmony are in tension, if not conflict, and how some great thinkers have followed them down blind alleys and dead ends.
The aim of the course is to show the enormous consequences of harmony in the evolution of our understanding of the universe, and how science itself progresses in fits, starts, and setbacks as old ideas intermingle with new developments. We will also see how objective/quantitative aspects of harmony interact with subjective/qualitative considerations, and how cultural perspectives and prejudices can affect the progression of science. Finally, we will glimpse how these concepts are applied to contemporary issues in physics such as the study of elementary particles and the structure of the universe.
Physics is ultimately grounded in the language of mathematics, so equations and numbers will make appearances in the class. However, mathematical derivations and problem solving will not be the focus of the class. Students with diverse backgrounds and interests, particularly non-STEM, are especially welcome in this seminar, with the goal of exploring harmony from as many perspectives as possible.