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  • Guenter Koch

How to make the unhearable hearable: quantum physics phenomena represented through music

If there is any scientific discipline which expresses best the concept of the intangible and the „unexplainable“, it must be quantum physics. For any „normal“ person the phenomena by which quantum physical realities express themselves can’t be explained by any natural, human-conceived explanation, mapping them into a subject of concrete perception within the world as we experience it. Quantum physics, although materialised by means of experiments and even by some practical applications in electronics, can only be thoroughly „understood“ by means of theories making use of heavy mathematical foundations.

The paradigm change from classical physics to quantum physics took place around a hundred years ago, when famous physicists such as Albert Einstein tried to explain the strange nature of quantum phenomena such as the dual nature of light, which consists of both waves and particles at the same time (quote): „It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do“.

Since then many more such discoveries have been made, which even confused Einstein. Together with friends, he undertook some theoretical studies, the results of which he thought must remain theoretical forever. One of those is called quantum entanglement, which – according to Wikipedia – is a physical phenomenon occurring when pairs or groups of particles, specifically photons, are generated, interact, or share spatial proximity in such ways that the quantum state of each particle cannot be described independently of the state of the other(s), even when the particles are separated by a large distance — instead, a quantum state must be described for the system, i.e. all its elements as a whole. Einstein referred to this, which he thought was a virtual phenomenon, as (quote) some "spooky action at a distance" and he argued that the formulation of quantum mechanics, as was the common perception at his time, therefore must be incomplete and need reconsideration.

However, in my career as a science manager, I was happy to have met an experimental physicist in Vienna, Anton Zeilinger, who proved that such counterintuitive phenomena can be verified– that is, they are quite real. It turned out that many other strange predictions were also not just a matter of fantasy. Since the interdependence of two entangled particles has triggered in the imagination the idea that this effect might someday be usable for material transfer called „teleportation“, Zeilinger for purposes of illustration permitted the use of the metaphor of „Beam me up, Scotty“ (which, for the record, he thinks will never work in the way it is presented in science fiction). Zeilinger demonstrated that entangled photons can be used for purposes of encryption in data transmission over even very large distances.

There exist many more phenomena known from the quantum mechanics domain, which cannot explained by „normal logic“, but only by intricate mathematical models that appear to be too complex to us “normal beings” with our “normal” educational backgrounds. (By the way, for decades Einstein’s Relativity Theory was also only understood by very few experts trained in abstract thinking; today it is a subject of secondary school education in physics). I would go as far as to state that without a solid background in higher mathematics it is impossible to conceive and understand any aspect of quantum mechanics properly.

Since up to now we have not been able to have any direct insight into the sub-atomic world, physicists have had to invent methods by which they can discern what goes on „down there“, in some cases by applying the heaviest lab instruments currently in place, such as CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, a huge particle accelerator installed close to Geneva that needs kilometres of cyclic „motorway“ for getting particles close to light speed. The phenomena being studied can only be detected indirectly by collecting masses of big data e.g. during particle collision experiments. Such indirect insight in the subatomic space was demonstrated most impressively when the CERN scientists searched for the so-called Higgs Boson, a subatomic element the proof of whose existence is decisive for verifying the validity of the standard model of matter. Believe it or not, the question of whether the particle really exists was answered through a kind of majority vote moderated by CERN’s director in 2012, asking the assembly of physicists at CERN if they believe that the data collected from the experiments made so far would prove the existence of this element! Their answer was YES.

One question which we debate in GRASP is how we can perceive what looks to be unperceivable, intangible, untouchable. In a music concert which I attended recently – it was Beethoven’s fifth piano concert – I experienced the epiphany that music orchestrated in this dimension might be the best sensorial representation for quantum physical processes. Without starting a discussion on another quantum-physical phenomenon („superposition“ and the nature of „quantum bits“ to be used for quantum computers), we may take a music concert as sensorial correspondence to events taking place either in the subatomic world or, at the other end of the dimension, in cosmology. The cosmos has fuelled the fantasy of musicians since time immemorial; nowadays musicians directly compose „cosmic music“ (By the way, my favourite is Pink Floyd’s „Dark Side of the Moon“). Indeed, recently the idea of quantum music has begun to catch on – for some further listening, go to and GRASP http://quantummusic.org/ or https://youtu.be/WdAJtNblU_g or https://youtu.be/j2rlYjwZGBc.



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