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

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

by Philip Moriarty


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There are deep and fascinating links between heavy metal and quantum physics. No, really!

While teaching at the University of Nottingham, physicist Philip Moriarty noticed something odd, a surprising number of his students were heavily into metal music. Colleagues, too: a Venn diagram of physicists and metal fans would show a shocking amount of overlap.

What's more, it turns out that heavy metal music is uniquely well-suited to explaining quantum principles.

In When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to Eleven, Moriarty explains the mysteries of the universe's inner workings via drum beats and feedback: You'll discover how the Heisenberg uncertainty principle comes into play with every chugging guitar riff, what wave interference has to do with Iron Maiden, and why metalheads in mosh pits behave just like molecules in a gas.

If you're a metal fan trying to grasp the complexities of quantum physics, a quantum physicist baffled by heavy metal, or just someone who'd like to know how the fundamental science underpinning our world connects to rock music, this book will take you, in the words of Pantera, to “A New Level.”

For those who think quantum physics is too mind-bendingly complex to grasp, or too focused on the invisibly small to be relevant to our full-sized lives, this funny, fascinating book will show you that physics is all around us . . . and it rocks.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781944648527
Publisher: BenBella Books, Inc.
Publication date: 07/31/2018
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 803,363
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Philip Moriarty is a professor of physics, a heavy metal fan, and a keen air-drummer. His research focuses on prodding, pushing, and poking single atoms and molecules; in this nanoscopic world, quantum physics is all. Moriarty has taught physics for almost twenty years and has always been struck by the number of students in his classes who profess a love of metal music, and by the deep connections between heavy metal and quantum mechanics. He’s a father of three—Niamh, Saoirse, and Fiachra—who have patiently endured his off-key attempts to sing along with Rush classics for many years. Unlike his infamous namesake, Moriarty has never been particularly enamored of the binomial theorem.

Read an Excerpt



Wheels within wheels, a spiral array A pattern so grand and complex

— Ruh's "Natural Science"

It starts with a primal thud. A universal heartbeat.

Seconds later, a wall of sound explodes.

Through the mist, arms outstretched, a figure emerges. Guttural grunts and growls give way to the most haunting of melodies. The music builds majestically, spellbinding in its intensity, a complex soundscape underpinned by a deep emotional charge. The crowd becomes a choir, voices resonant with those onstage ...

There's nothing quite like the sense-bludgeoning experience of a heavy metal gig. The all-enveloping power of the music, the theatrics, the histrionics ... and the physics. Yes, the physics. Believe it or not, the links between heavy metal and quantum physics are especially deep and simply have not received anything like the attention they deserve. Quantum physics — also known as "quantum mechanics" or simply "quantum theory," because why have one name for something when you could have three, right? — is the physics of the invisible, the science of particles that are smaller than small. It's also in essence a theory of waves, and therefore the connections with the physics of music are already strong. But the stylings of heavy metal take these connections to another level entirely: chugging guitars, choked cymbals, artificial harmonics, and mosh pits each have their own parallels within the physics of the ultrasmall.

I think it's safe to say that quantum physics has a reputation for being conceptually challenging. On the other hand, heavy metal — and its myriad thrash-power-sludge-stoner-hair-glam-death-progressive -djentindustrial-[complete according to taste] subgenres and subcultures — is not, it has to be said, generally considered to be the most cerebral of musical forms. Unfairly stereotyped as music for Neanderthals, frequently seen as the root of all evil (and, as such, a convenient scapegoat for societal problems whose origins are a great deal more complex than the lyrics of the latest Judas Priest album), metal is nonetheless often harmonically rich, lyrically challenging, and rhythmically complex.

... and, yes, I have to grudgingly admit, just as often it's not. But for every KISS, Motley Crue, or Whitesnake the metal critic will cite to make their case, I'll counter with Opeth, Meshuggah, and Dream Theater. Then I'll raise the stakes with Mastodon, TesseracT, Queensryche, and Tool. And to clinch the deal, I'll close with Rush. Each of these bands composes intelligent, intricate, and thoughtful music, their orchestrations frequently designed with what can only be called mathematical precision. (Indeed, there's an entire genre of metal known as math metal that prides itself on complex time signatures and "out there" arrangements.)

Although quite a number of bands have used scientific and/or mathematical themes as inspiration for their music — the super-talented and innovative Devin Townsend even titled one of his albums Physicist — that's not what this book is about. (I'll certainly be making more than passing reference to tracks and albums with strong lyrical/narrative links to science, however.) Nor am I preaching only to the converted. I love metal. And I love physics. And I know from the logos that adorn the T-shirts of many physics students and researchers that I'm certainly not alone in this. But while this book has, of course, been written with those metal-loving physicists (or physics-loving metalheads, if you prefer) very much in mind, it's not just my "tribe" I'm hoping to connect with. My key motivation in writing this is to bring the beauty of quantum physics to a wider audience via the medium of metal. As we'll see, metal music is perfectly placed when it comes to crossing that age-old (and very silly) divide between the arts/humanities and the sciences. Each time your favorite band launches into that riff or that rhythm or that drum pattern, they're exploiting the very same principles of physics and mathematics that underpin how atoms, molecules, and quantum particles behave.

You'll notice that I slipped "mathematics" into the preceding sentence. I make absolutely no apologies in telling you that we're not going to go out of our way to avoid maths as we explore all of those fascinating quantum-metal parallels. Some editors might claim that this statement alone would be enough to reduce a book's readership by 50 percent (or some similarly alarming figure no doubt plucked from thin air). However, I have a great deal of confidence in the intellect and tenacity of the average metal fan (and the average reader in general). Anyway, in all conscience, I can't drop the maths — it's the language of physics.

So: there will be maths. But contrary to popular belief in some quarters — I'm looking at some of you unreconstructed theorists here — physics is not just mathematics. And while to a mathematician, equations and functions have an elegance and a beauty all their own, for physicists it's the "unreasonable effectiveness" of mathematics in describing the world around us that never fails to impress. The fact that so much of the behavior and structure of our universe can be captured by maths is truly remarkable. And that's exactly what we're going to see time and again in this book: the uncanny, staggeringly "unreasonable effectiveness" with which mathematics explains everything from the crunchiest of riffs and heaviest of rhythms to the far-beyond-driven vibrations of atoms and molecules.

A number of years back, I worked with a very talented musician called Dave Brown (aka the YouTuber Boyinaband) on a metal song whose riffs, rhythms, and, um, rlyrics ((C) D. Brown) were derived from the fundamental constant known as the golden ratio. We uploaded a YouTube video for this math-metal mash-up and, foolishly ignoring the wise counsel of friends and colleagues regarding the quality of online critique, took a look at the comments. I was absolutely delighted to read the following:

Thank you, Christina! The ethos behind When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11 is exactly this.

Now before we can start to really get our heads around the maths and physics underpinning metal, we need to address a deep and fundamental question. A question that cuts to the core of everything in this book: Just what is sound? Or, if you prefer: What is noise? And just how is it that we — to quote Anthrax quoting Public Enemy — bring the noise?

Surveying the Soundscape

What's happening at the most fundamental level when we hear something?

Short answer: a heck of a lot of physics, quite a bit of biochemistry, and some amazing psychology.

The somewhat longer answer ...

The sounds we hear every day are due, ultimately, to vibrations. And an excellent source of vibrations is an amplifier stack wound up to eleven. The cone of the loudspeaker vibrates, causing the surrounding air to be shaken up. More precisely, the air molecules are periodically pushed together and separated by the vibrations of the loudspeaker, forming a sound wave. This means that there are regular changes in the number of molecules packed into a given amount of space — in other words, the air density varies. If we had a powerful microscope that could image the individual molecules in the air — and microscopes now exist that can not only pick out individual molecules but can see inside them to discern their chemical architecture — we'd in principle be able to see that density vary right down to the molecular level.

There's a problem with this strategy, however. There are millions upon billions upon trillions of molecules buzzing around down there, and if we could see every molecule, we'd be overwhelmed; it'd be a massive case of too much information. Luckily, there is a technique that allows us to visualize sound waves — to see sound — in a more instructive way. It's a process developed by physicist August Toepler in the 1860s that's known as Schlieren photography. It works by exploiting the refraction that occurs when light travels through regions of air that have different densities. That might sound somewhat esoteric, but you've seen this effect in action many times before: the shimmering heat haze that appears on roads on a hot day is due to light being bent by the difference in air density. In that case, it's not sound energy that's creating the density variation, but heat energy.

Here's what a Schlieren image of a sound wave would look like, drawn reasonably to scale:


With Schlieren imaging, we can't see the individual molecules. But, nonetheless, we can directly observe the variation in the density of the air as the sound wave propagates. It's a remarkable technique.

Sound is what's known as a longitudinal wave. All this means is that the movement of the medium — in this case, air — is parallel to the direction of motion of the wave. It's important to realize that the air itself does not travel with the wave — it's the disturbance that travels. In essence, the sound wave transmits energy, not matter. If you don't have an advanced Schlieren imaging system on hand (they don't come cheap), a Slinky can be used as a rather less costly — and, let's be honest, equally fun — tool to visualize a longitudinal wave. A Slinky in action mimics how a sound wave travels: the coils of the Slinky periodically move closer together (compression) and farther apart (rarefaction). The compression-rarefaction cycle of a Slinky's coils is analogous to the cyclic change in air density due to a sound wave:


While we're playing with our Slinky, we can also generate the other type of wave motion that underpins so much of metal music: the transverse wave. In this case, the movement of the medium is perpendicular to the direction of the wave.

This type of wave is exceptionally important for our purposes because the ultimate origin of all those earth-shaking, teeth-rattling, and ear-piercing riffs and solos is the transverse wave that forms when a guitar string is hit with a pick. The transverse wave is in turn the origin of the longitudinal sound wave that reaches our ears; the motion of the string excites the air molecules, and one type of wave motion is converted to the other.

We can use the wonderful audio application Audacity to capture the waveform produced by the string. The illustration on the next page shows what Audacity displays for the opening note of Metallica's "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)." (Played on an acoustic guitar. This note, like most of the sound samples analyzed in this book, can be heard at the Uncertainty to 11 YouTube channel: https://www.you tube.com/channel/UCIg28nCrNa_gEHCEgPYfMqQ.) It shows just how the volume of the note — or, more correctly, its amplitude — varies over time on two different timescales. The larger graph was made as the note rang out over about five and a half seconds. Although the gradual decay of the volume is clear — the note eventually dies away — it's difficult to discern any well-defined wave pattern on this longer timescale. If we zoom in on the time axis, however, and look at what's happening on the scale of 100-milliseconds, it's a different story indeed. The inset shows a very regular, periodic pattern as the guitar string cycles back and forth, driving the air molecules (which in turn drive the microphone and enable the signal to be captured by my laptop).

That sample makes it very clear that the waveform is cyclical — it repeats with a well-defined period. It's traditional in physics to use an uppercase T to represent this period of oscillation. And there's an exceptionally simple relationship between the period, T, and frequency, f, of the wave: frequency is the number of cycles the wave completes every second, so f= 1/T. We use the unit Hz, short for hertz, for frequency. The higher the frequency, the higher the pitch we hear. This simple relationship between pitch and frequency is often illustrated using a diagram something like this:


The notes toward the left-hand end of the piano keyboard have a longer period than those toward the right-hand end. This means that they have a lower frequency — in other words, fewer cycles are packed in per second.

I fully realize, however, that keyboards have long divided the metal community. In the early 1980s, and as a direct reaction against the synth-driven electropop that dominated the charts at the time, Iron Maiden proudly declared "No synthesizers or ulterior motives" on the cover of their Piece of Mind album. (Nonetheless, just a few years later Maiden made heavy use of guitar synths on their 1986 release, Somewhere in Time. And a decade or so down the line, Fear Factory was spearheading electropop-metal crossover with a crushing cover of Gary Numan's "Cars," featuring Numan himself.)

For those who prefer their metal old-school and untainted by newfangled technology, let's convert that keyboard-centric diagram above to something a little more appropriate for the genre ...

It's the same idea: down toward the left-hand end of the neck we have the low notes (from the perspective of the guitarist, that is, and if you can forgive the right-handed–centric view; apologies to those lefties who are reading). At the other end of the neck we find the face-melting, eardrum-damaging, gurn-generating high-pitched notes that are the bedrock of the metal guitar solo. It's again just a simple matter of low-frequency vs high-frequency notes.

Or is it?

Here's what the opening note of "Sanitarium" looks like in standard musical notation for a guitarist:


... And here's what it looks like for a pianist:


Spot the difference?


That's because there isn't one.

Yet if I were to play that opening note on a guitar and then on a piano, you'd readily discern a difference — it would be clear that a different instrument had been used in each case. Why is this? After all, it's an E note regardless of whether it's played on a guitar, piano, flute, or kazoo. The frequency of that E note is 84 Hz in each case. So how do we instinctively know that the note has been played on different instruments?

Enter Fourier.

Pitches and Patterns

Let's travel back to a time long Before Sabbath (BS) — before the first distorted notes were wrung from an electric guitar, before rock and roll emerged from the blues, long before the blues itself arose in the Deep South. We're going back to the eighteenth century, to consider the remarkable insights and true genius of Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier. It's no exaggeration to say that Fourier radically changed the way we understand the world around us, on scales ranging from the subatomic to the ninety-three-billion-light-year diameter of the observable universe. And before we can understand the relationships between metal and quantum physics, we're going to need to take a look at Fourier's elegant approach to the analysis of waves and patterns.

Fourier's core idea is very simple to state: a pattern in space or time can be broken down into the waves that make it up. More specifically, Fourier analysis is a kind of translation that gives us a way of taking a complex mathematical function and breaking it into simpler functions. That's it.

Unfortunately, mention the words "Fourier analysis" to many who have completed a physics or engineering degree, and you'll provoke an involuntary shudder as long-suppressed memories of attempting to solve Fourier integrals come flooding back. It's a shame, but the revolutionary simplicity at the heart of Fourier analysis is often obscured by the (relatively) complicated mathematics involved in performing it. Fortunately, for our purpose, it's fairly easy to translate much of the mathematical notation into musical concepts. (If you crave a more detailed explanation of the core mathematics, see the appendix on "The Maths of Metal" on page 311.)

For now, let's start with a demonstration of Fourier's methods in action. We're going to whistle a note. Yes, I know that whistling isn't very metal, but the great thing about a whistled note is that it's a simple, pure tone and, as is so often the case in physics (and is especially the case when it comes to Fourier analysis), we gain a lot of understanding by breaking a system or phenomenon down to its most basic elements. Perhaps the best example of whistling in hard rock, if not metal, is the start of Guns N' Roses' "Patience." Axl Rose opens with a whistled A? (A-sharp) note. Here's what my version of that whistled note looks like, recorded (as ever) with Audacity and observed over the course of 10 milliseconds:

It's worth comparing this waveform with the graph a few pages back of that E note at the start of "Sanitarium" as played on guitar. Go ahead, do it. The frequency is different-the E at the start of "Sanitarium" is a much lower pitch than the A? note whistled by Axl Rose (and that's why the timescales on the corresponding graphs are different)-but a significantly more important difference is that the shape of the waveform is much simpler. The whistled note depicted above looks almost exactly like a "textbook" wave; it varies smoothly in a way that's straight out of Wave Physics 101. A physicist looking at the sample of that whistled note would say that it's very close in form to a pure sine wave. On the other hand, the opening note of "Sanitarium," whether played on guitar or piano, looks far more complicated.


Excerpted from "When The Uncertainty Principle Goes To 11"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Philip Moriarty.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

CHAPTER 1 Permanent Waves, 1,
CHAPTER 2 Banging a Different Drum, 17,
CHAPTER 3 From Fourier to Fear Factory, 39,
CHAPTER 4 Running to Stand Still, 57,
CHAPTER 5 A Quantum Leap: Thinking Inside the Box, 81,
CHAPTER 6 Giants of the Infinitesimal, 109,
CHAPTER 7 Uncertainty Blurs the Vision, 149,
CHAPTER 8 Into Another Dimension, 187,
CHAPTER 9 Into the Void, 217,
CHAPTER 10 In and Out of Phase, 241,
CHAPTER 11 Caught in a Mosh, 273,
CONCLUSION And the Bands Played On ..., 303,
Appendix: The Maths of Metal, 311,
Acknowledgments, 329,
Index, 332,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“A refreshing and accessible introduction to nanoscience for the curious metalhead.”

Science Magazine

“You don’t need to be a metalhead to like this book—but be warned that if you do like this book, you will probably find yourself more of a metalhead by the end than you were at the start, because the enthusiasm is infectious. You might even find you have a better grip of the notorious mind-warping concepts of quantum mechanics too.”

—Philip Ball, author of Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Thought You Knew about Quantum Physics Is Different

“A magical mosh pit of Slayer and spandex trousers, sound waves, and strings—this is quantum physics as you’ve never seen or heard it before.”

—Matin Durrani, editor of Physics World magazine and coauthor of Furry Logic: the Physics of Animal Life

“Both metal-heads and physicists have become caricatures in today’s pop culture. In his wonderfully conversational writing, Moriarty smashes these stereotypes and subverts expectations by weaving the two worlds together. This book shows how unexpected ideas cut across the worlds of heavy metal and quantum physics. If you enjoy surprises, brutal band logos, or insane riffs, you’ll love this book. Forgot pop-sci. This is metal-sci.”

—Jesse Silverberg, PhD, physicist and Harvard research fellow

“I thought I’d already seen every possible analogy for the weird world of quantum physics, but Philip Moriarty’s music-inspired take on it is fresh and engaging . . . Moriarty’s enthusiasm for both physics and metal shines through so much in his writing that I was tempted to break out the Megadeth myself while reading. If you’ve ever been intrigued by quantum mechanics but worried that you couldn’t hack an entire book on the subject, try this one, and you won’t be disappointed.”

—Kelly Oakes, former science editor for BuzzFeed UK

“Whether you’re a physicist, science enthusiast, musician, or music fan, this book will entertain and enlighten in equal amounts. It will bring a new beauty to your favorite songs, and arm you with fresh concepts to explain some of the most counter-intuitive of scientific ideas. At the very least, you’ll have an interesting conversational tangent to adopt next time someone wants to force their amateur rendition of ‘Smoke on the Water’ upon you.”

David Domminney Fowler, guitarist with the Australian Pink Floyd Show

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