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Science meets metal in a musical introduction to modern physics

When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11: Or How to Explain Quantum Physics with Heavy Metal

Philip Moriarty
BenBella Books
2018
350 pp.
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With increasing numbers of students entering tertiary education, maintaining interest in the physical sciences requires new approaches to engagement that marry course content with students’ passions and interests beyond the classroom. In Philip Moriarty’s book, When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11: Or How to Explain Quantum Physics with Heavy Metal, introductory physics comes to life with the energy and enthusiasm of a Metallica concert.

Attempting to explain quantum mechanics by using heavy metal music may at first sound like a challenge worthy of a game show. And yet at closer inspection, it becomes clear that music is an ideal platform for introducing concepts including the physics of waves, harmonics, resonance phenomena, energy conservation, and Fourier analysis in accessible and relatable ways.

Moriarty blends humor with pop-culture references while explaining Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the cosmic microwave background, and the statistical mechanics of crowds in a concert mosh pit. The book zigzags between physics, blog references, links to YouTube videos, and commentary of the author’s own life as a musician and nanoscientist.

Paired with quirky illustrations by Pete McPartlan, When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11 makes for a refreshing and accessible introduction to nanoscience for the curious metalhead. The book features some deep dives into the techniques of scanning tunneling microscopy and its use in arranging and probing single atoms for the construction of atomic electronic devices and somehow connects these concepts back to heavy metal.

JENA ARDELL/GETTY IMAGES

Researchers have shown that the same mathematical function can be used to describe the movement of molecules in a gas and moshers at a metal gig.

Readers raised on a diet of shred-guitar chops will find Moriarty’s endless analogies amusing and useful on-ramps to a repertoire of modern physics. His analysis of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar effects pedals and the quantitative comparison between the sound of the Big Bang and the loudest heavy metal concert are worth the price of admission alone.

Despite its title, though, the book turns down the volume on quantum mechanics, entirely skipping references to quantum entanglement or the new quantum information science that is currently propelling the quest for technologies such as quantum computers, sensors, and secure communications systems. Rather, Moriarty’s perspective is that quantum mechanics is mostly just wave mechanics, devoid of enigmatic concepts and thus not so mind-bending after all.

“Ultimately, wave interference is the source of all weirdness of the quantum world,” he states. Pushing back against the new-age peddling of Deepak Chopra’s “quantum woo” is one thing, but in his effort to make the quantum world accessible to the many, Moriarty also squeezes out most of the mystery that has perplexed the best minds for the past 100 years.

Still, as a platform for science engagement, musings about the deep connections between science, technology, and culture make for compelling reading, and Moriarty’s book is no exception. As the historian Patrick McCray underscores (see his engaging blog Leaping Robot), our understanding of scientific concepts and their technological importance is deeply entrenched and shaped by cultural forces. McCray and other scholars have argued that we owe much of today’s technology to yesteryear’s science-fiction writers, who, in their imagination, promoted a dazzling vision for the future and articulated much of the technological roadmap, long before science knew how to get there. In this order, culture leads and technology follows.

In music, as in film and other forms of artistic expression, it is often the imperfections imposed by the technologies of the day that establish and define cultural epochs. These technological limitations come first, shape our human experiences, and create subcultures that follow.

DANIEL KNIGHTON/GETTY IMAGES

Waveform interference is a key feature of the double-slit experiment and Eddie Van Halen’s “brown sound.”

Distorted electric guitar sounds that define heavy metal music were once a nuisance derived from the limitation of guitar amplifier technology. Now, we have software tools, running on processors built from billions of transistors, that emulate the sound of a single vacuum tube, because tubes sound better.

Entire cultural epochs get wrapped up into layers of these technological limitations. To a discerning ear, for instance, the sound of recorded music of the 1980s is distinctive. With a little practice, an opening chord or drum lick is all it takes to instantly reference the particular spectral character of iron-oxide tape that was prevalent throughout recordings from this era. And how about that filter Huji, which makes your Instagram photos look like they were shot with a disposable camera?

In Moriarty’s book, the technology-culture feedback comes full circle. Initially shaped and defined by the technological limits of making music louder (much, much louder), the subculture of heavy metal music now provides an opportunity to engage with, and comprehend, fundamental physics.

About the author

The reviewer is at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems and Microsoft Quantum–Sydney, The University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.