Book Review: The Jazz of Physics, by Stephon Alexander

A publishing colleague posted this book’s cover on Twitter and I was immediately interested. If you know me or know my work, then the subjects of jazz and physics (particularly quantum physics) are both dear to me. To my surprise, I was subsequently sent a copy of Stephon Alexander’s The Jazz of Physics in the mail…which I then proceeded to neglect for over a year.

Why? Well, for one, I had a backlog of books I’d earmarked for reading and I was also finishing off the manuscript for my next novel. However, if I were to be perfectly honest, it was partly out of fear. Aside from the loose premise, I didn’t know Alexander as an author and I didn’t know what the thrust of the book and, perhaps most importantly, its tone would be cover of The Jazz of Physics I was afraid it would be a beginner’s guide to physics using jazz as a loose, entertaining metaphor that ultimately ends up lacking specificity about either jazz or physics.

I could not have been more wrong. It’s the opposite. The Jazz of Physics is written by someone who is as serious and seriously accomplished a physicist (currently a professor at Brown University) as he is a dedicated and well-studied jazz musician. Rather than a figurative metaphor, Alexander uses jazz as a profound analogy for the very workings of our universe. He’s not using it to disingenuously sell physics. Growing up in the Bronx surrounded by musical influences (a story about the Five Percenter Nation is fascinating) as well as having a natural intuition for understanding the principles of science, The Jazz of Physics is a fascinating biographical narrative and nothing short of a passion project, an attempt to argue in the deadly-serious terms of cutting edge quantum theory that the relationship between music — specifically jazz, in how it centres on improvisation — and the formation of the universe is less figurative than literal.

Tall order? Yes.

First, let me stress how difficult a task it is for someone such as Alexander to pull this off. I have read well-argued books by esteemed physicists that ended up self-sabotaging themselves because they lost track of who their audience is — something I am inclined to believe is the chief challenge of any such endeavour. As an author writing for a general audience, the deeper you go into the macro and micro of physics (corresponding respectively to relativity and quantum theory), the harder it is to keep the reader’s attention. Alexander works hard, imaginatively and creatively, to find analogies to help the reader along — the use of analogies themselves are the cornerstone for him:

Next to mathematics, I learned that one of the most powerful tools involved with unraveling the secrets in the theoretical sciences is simplifying the system at hand and borrowing an analogy from what might, at first glance, be a completely unrelated discipline. It is in the limits of these analogies, where there exists a need for further research, that an avenue for discover lies.

Along his path, we are introduced to both eminent physicists — not just the usual suspects such as Einstein, Dirac, and Schrödinger, but contemporaries such as Lee Smolin, Faye Dowker, and Bill Unruh — and their musical equivalents: John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and MC Rakim. Yes, I wish there were more women represented in this book, but I’m not going to put that on Alexander because he’s drawing from direct experience.

What leaps off the pages of The Jazz of Physics is Alexander’s passion for both disciplines, and he goes to pains in order to lure the reader — the question of which, jazz fans or amateur physicists, are more likely to be interested is a question I will come back to — into the complexities of these distinct yet related worlds and his unfolding thesis — that, ultimately, the stuff of our current universe may very well have been formed via sound. A stumbling block for some readers might be the extent to which they are either a) versed in these subjects, and b) prepared (if not) to travel the highly sophisticated, often mathematically structured path Alexander is, by his own decision, obligated to illustrate. There might also be those who question the extent to which the term “music” is construed from what is ultimately sound. This latter concern is remarkably well handled by the author who ultimately provides a convincing argument.

With respect to the mathematics and formulae included in the book, there are two sides to look at this from. Alexander is careful in the beginning to encourage the casual reader to accept the parts that are over their head and keep following the tune, as it were. I am by no means adept at math, my interest in quantum physics being more conceptual than anything else. While I was able to proceed past sections where the author felt it necessary to draw the more mathematically-minded kids in the room closer without losing a beat, I have to admit that three-quarters in I began to get lost in the minutiae of quantum theory itself. Want to know what a brane is? Inflaton fields? Anyone? No? After a while, neither did I, and this is where I began to ask myself — as someone who felt that this book was written for me — how many other readers with a general-to-specific interest are going to find themselves skipping numerous paragraphs (if not the better parts of chapters) because of the growing complexity of these quantum building blocks that Alexander discovers in his journey. I can’t fault him because these are the very things that were stumping him so why should we be able to swallow it in one gulp? It has led me to ask myself how well this book sold, seeing as it might be too science-y for jazz fans, and the language of jazz itself can be a figurative mess for anyone who’s never needed to decipher a symmetric diminished scale.

This is a science book that draws its inspiration from a deep and abiding love of jazz (and music as a whole). Anyone expecting to understand music in the same way that Alexander attempts to illustrate his passion for physics might find themselves disappointed, although, to the author’s credit, his passion for both is infectious.

Lastly, there is something very significant in this book about mentorship. Alexander’s journey of discovery is also one of, to use a phrase from Sir Isaac Newton, standing on the shoulders of giants. Science, like jazz, is inherently collaborative — the thing is, not anyone off the street is going to be given room for a solo on the stage. You have to have chops, and I appreciate how the author comes back to this bargain one makes, that if you want to learn and grow with the more experienced colleagues in your field you have to first demonstrate your aptitude and willingness to learn.

The Jazz of Physics (ISBN: 978-0465034994) is available at an independent bookstore near you. Curiously, I wonder what it’s like as an audiobook?



I don’t know how or when I got into ambient music. I can tell you there have been a few seminal contributors: classical music, movie soundtracks, minimalist and so-called world music composers, and the more spacious actors in pop/rock music.

Let’s start with a sort-of definition of ambient music, and I will begin by saying that I have no formal education in this realm. Ambient music is typically experimental and tends toward spaciousness and a lack of traditional (Western) song structure; it has its roots in the likes of 20th century composers such as John Cage, as well, during its development, contributions from traditional music from India and Japan, as well as from jazz. It can be a formless and electronic haze, or it could be all about exacting pattern and repetition using traditional instrumentation. There is also often a sense of the tactile. I will include some examples toward the end of this piece to begin to provide some context. At the end of the day, what is and isn’t strictly termed “ambient” is often more a question of the composer’s intent. You will just as likely see genre labels such as “minimalist,” “drone,” and “experimental” instead, as the term “ambient” can be a sort of kludge.

As a primary influence on me, classical music is a no-brainer, and like a lot of kids who grew up at the time I did, we were treated (or as I like to say, inculcated) to classical music through Bugs Bunny and Disney cartoons. As an adult I love the flourish and bombast of Shostakovich and Borodin, and the aching lyricism of Vivaldi and Bach. However, there is something undeniably mesmerizing about a brief section of Act II of Wagner’s opera Siegfried, where, through gorgeous use of instrumentation and dynamics we are surrounded by the quiet stirrings of nature — it surrounds the listener and one has no choice but to surrender to its formlessness. This formlessness is not something we often associate with something so strictly structured as classical* music.

the cover of Twine, an album by Taylor Deupree and Marcus Fischer. This image shows 1/4" audio tape loops hanging from the top of the frame.

As a movie buff, it makes perfect sense, given my exposure to classical music as a child, that movie soundtracks would inspire my appreciation of ambient music. Even in an epic space opera such as The Emperor Strikes Back there are many moments — particularly the suspenseful, quiet bits — where John Williams draws from classical roots, but of course, in order to create mood and retain timbre, sections end up as long stretches of almost abstract-sounding composition. Another perfect example would be the use of György Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey during the monolith scenes. Funny how sci-fi tends toward this direction.

A movie and a soundtrack that shook my foundations as a teenager was Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi. While the imagery was both disturbing and inventive, it was my introduction to Philip Glass’ minimalist composition that entranced me. Its mantric dedication to repetition using an orchestral ensemble and use of church organ and choir during its more climactic parts was catnip to this kid. When, a year or so later after seeing this, I discovered that Glass had collaborated on an album with Ravi Shankar (1990’s Passages) I couldn’t resist picking up a copy at a classical/jazz record shop near where I worked as a photolab technician. It was love at first listen; while some might’ve thought that the two were at odds with each other — one an avant-garde composer, the other an Indian classicist — their collaboration (each took turns orchestrating the other’s compositions) was a major influence on me.

To save space here, I will briefly name three other significant musical influences: David Sylvian, Talk Talk, and Miles Davis. Sylvian’s Japan reunion of-sorts, Rain Tree Crow, only put out one album but it was a low-key combination of rock/jazz/experimental soundscapes with African rhythms that has had a lasting influence on how I decided to listen to music. Talk Talk’s last two albums — Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock — are rightly hailed as experimental masterpieces of pop-meets-improv jazz however a single song deserves mention, from their comparatively more formal pop album The Colour of Spring: April 5th. You can see where they were going with only that one song (and the album is wonderful as it is). Lastly, discovering Miles Davis’ album In A Silent Way was another key piece in my ad hoc self-education: the tactile nature of the instrumentation has been hugely influential on composers of all genres since then (and you can hear a motif from this album used on Taylor Deupree and Marcus Fischer’s Twine).

Over the last seven or more years, I’ve become deeply involved with ambient/experimental works by composers such as Stephan Mathieu (who not only composes but masters others’ work at his studio) , Deupree (who established the influential ambient label 12K), and France Jobin, as well as those, like Ryuichi Sakamoto and Christian Fennesz, who dip in and out of the ambient genre.

In an age where we are bombarded with divisive and interruptive dialogs encouraging us to be outraged at every turn (not to mention the very real aspects of society that are worth our outrage, if only we had the time and energy to devote to them while being able to support ourselves financially), experimental ambient music allows me — on a good day — to reset my thoughts and tune into a more free-form sonic world. Ambient is not pablum. Ambient is not “new age music.” If anything ambient has been about transcending the boundaries of “instrument” and “technology”, something all genres of music have attempted at one time or another; hip-hop does this particularly well.

Here are some examples that have been influential for me:

Radioland, by Stephan Mathieu:

Perpetual, by Ruyuichi Sakamoto / Illuha / Taylor Deupree:

Duo, by France Jobin + Richard Chartier:

~~~, anna roxanne:

Arrow, by Richard Youngs:

Tracing Back The Radiance, by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma:

Allister Thompson hosted a blog, Make Your Own Taste, that contains a lot of ambient artists and contextual information on the genre. You would do well to visit if this is your thing.

*note: I use the term “classical” generically; technically I prefer the Baroque and Romantic periods best, truth be told.


Book Review: Casting Light on the Dark Side of Brain Imaging

Whenever a mental health authority is interviewed in the media it’s nearly inevitable that this person is a medical doctor, usually a psychiatrist. This individual typically isn’t a practicing therapist; they may only be able to speak of clinical diagnoses and/or the prescription of psychopharmaceuticals. I mention this because when this authoritative psychiatrist is interviewed in the media I end up listening to a depiction of the massively complex human interrelational landscape I see around me every day, as both a writer and psychotherapist, reduced to a chemical imbalance in someone’s brain. It’s like ascribing a boxer’s loss of a title match solely to the width of their biceps.

book coverThe gold standard for looking at mental health is through what’s called a biopsychosocial lens, a flexible model that allows professionals to consider the biomedical (for example, thyroid issues, dementia), the psychological (traumatic experiences, abusive relationships), and socio-economic factors (unemployment, impoverished environment) that might be at play in the mental health profile of any given individual, even if it ends up a combination of one or more parts. In North America there is unfortunately a sacred primacy around the biomedical approach to mental health, with the psychological and socio-economic as (at best) secondary considerations at the table of funding and education. At this moment there are medical doctors losing sleep wondering how to beat the shame of knowing there is a patient in their care whose condition might be psychogenic (meaning, whose pathology is not, strictly speaking, a biomedical end product). Continue reading “Book Review: Casting Light on the Dark Side of Brain Imaging”


Writing Adv*ce: Character

I’ve been thinking lately about a couple of short stories I’ve been working on over the last few years that don’t seem able to find a home with a publication. Now, there are a thousand reasons for a story to get rejected, and some of these have little to do with whether or not a story has issues to be worked out: subject matter, “fit,” philosophical angle. The stories I’ve been thinking about felt fleshed out and yet I suspected — no matter how badly I wanted to believe they were “done” — they were missing something that kept them from being as good as they promised to be, and, if I were honest with myself, the sort of work I want to be known for: complex, nuanced, readable.

One clear-headed morning on my walk to work, I was feeling comfortable enough to get over my nearsighted, belligerent writerly arrogance and apply some frank analysis to these two works.

Rather than bang my head against the wall staring at the works themselves, which I’d done previously, I took a different tack and investigated what it was that made some of my previously published work resonate and these current works not. And I realized, thinking specifically about Snowshoe and There Is This Thing About You, that the characters in these works were relatable — you might even despise them, yet there was a rapport with the reader, an “in”. These are difficult characters, conflicted, and sometimes there will be the desire to sublimate these characters onto a two-dimensional plane that makes it easy to dislike them. Yet, though we might grow impatient with their lack of finesse, accomplishment, and patience, the reader can’t help but want to relate to them, to understand what makes them tick. And in the stories I’ve been troubleshooting I discovered this very thing — relatability, respect, empathy — to be at least part of the missing element.

I recognized that each of these problematic stories featured a supporting character who was, to some degree, the bane of the main character’s journey; in each story the protagonist couldn’t possibly move forward without the effort of this unwitting adversary for whom in each story the protagonist lacked respect on some basic level. And it occurred to me that if the protagonist so clearly lacked respect for them on the page then on some level maybe I did too.

Despite this revelation, the work ahead is not paint-by-numbers. If anything, I realize that there’s a deeper layer that’s missing and by nature deep layers don’t just get applied like false eyelashes. It’s going to take some more reflection before I understand the meaning of what needs to be done, otherwise whatever I do is going to have QUICK FIX written all over it and the wily reader will see it a mile away.

Oh, and for anyone reading this who is under the impression that once these changes are made getting these stories published is a slam dunk, think again. Unless your name is Alice Munro you’re always going to find yourself at the whims of an editor or editorial reader — that’s just the way it goes.

(* I hate advice-giving, so rather than doing that, I’m going to provide something more meditative and complex, and maybe useful to some)


Hello, world (2019 version)

For all intents and purposes, I abandoned this blog. Not willingly or intentionally. To be honest, I didn’t (and still somewhat don’t) know what to do with it. You see, it contains a lot of crap; this is what happens with any blog over time: you change, the world changes, your knowledge/opinions develop. You end up with a blog where you squint at parts, hoping nobody looks too closely at the early stuff. I’ve been doing this since 2006, so cut me some slack.

I’m here to say that I’m back. I just don’t know what form this is going to take. You see, at some points this blog has been philosophically driven, psychologically driven, artistically driven…and I always feel bad when I change the mandate.

Why can’t you be more consistent? Does that question sound familiar? For those of us who are outliers (not by choice but by design), there is a great deal of downward pressure on us by society to fit the fuck in. Because if you’re not consistent then you’re difficult, and difficult means people have to spend more time than they anticipated trying to figure you out. People who are difficult or inconsistent typically find themselves struggling to figure themselves out — why the hell am I taking a path that only makes things harder for me socially?

Often, there’s no choice. Because being consistent typically means disregarding complexity, and if you have an innate appreciation for complexity then this is going to be a problem. And so, getting back to this blog, I’m not going to sweat the inconsistencies. I’m not going to pretend to stand by everything I wrote in 2012 or 2009 — this is why most posthumous memoirs shouldn’t be published: if the author had an opportunity, they would probably throw them into a fireplace for fear of looking like an asshole/monster. Thankfully, I don’t think I come across that badly.

Kerry Clare has some interesting points to make about returning to blogging. For me, I can relate to wanting to shift away from the disposability of social media. Particularly as I’m wrapping up work on my next novel, I think I have time for this.

I hope you’ll stick around.


Keep Moving / Being Wrong / Keep Moving

Sometimes I feel that I stand in-between too many things. Un-firm. Undecided. This is in part due to my fond appreciation for not only a lot of disparate topics but also disparate approaches. I believe in the vigour of an approach which involves good research. I also believe that we can lace “good research” with wishful thinking so that the evidence it produces is wishful thinking presented as fact. I believe that there are charlatans who willingly or naively provide a distraction that slows us down. I also believe that we dismiss many things as charlatanism not because they pose a danger but because they conflict with the politics of our personal or professional lives. I believe in intuition. I also believe intuition alone brings us too close to a raw reflexiveness which doesn’t serve long term needs.

So when someone asks me What do you think about x? I sometimes find myself considering a number of things and contexts to understand the question. The drawback is we’ve created a world where this sort of complexity is undesired. Certainly, in some industries and roles, complexity is unnecessary — a prime example would be assembly line work where the task is to simply crank out carbon copy iterations of something already conceived-of and revised to an acceptable standard. If you want to know what roles robots and AI are going to swallow up in the future, it’s those things. Complexity, on the other hand, keeps us guessing, reminds us that there are no set answers, or if there are they are kludges we developed until the next discovery forces us to revise our notions, our presumptions.

In an essay in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Ferris Jabr profiles someone turning to exotic flora in order to stave off our imminent depletion of effective antibiotics. The researcher in question turns to the lore of sometimes ancient civilizations, the extracts and tinctures from nature that one might rightly think come from fantasy, or from a presumably primitive culture. From some pharmaceutical industry perspectives, this is quackery. And yet, in one example, Continue reading “Keep Moving / Being Wrong / Keep Moving”


The Trouble With The Trouble With Physics

I’m on my second attempt reading Lee Smolin’s 2006 book The Trouble With Physics. I am reminded of a similar situation with another book, Joyce’s Ulysses. And, similarly, my second attempt with The Trouble With Physics is not a reappraisal but a confirmation: this is hard to read.

Smolin’s book is making a case for the fact that string theory is a failure; a spectacular failure that its adherents defend with a most byzantine theoretical web; that, because string theory is de rigueur in so many of the top schools, with so many reputations at stake, no one wants to recognize the fact that string theory — an attempt to harmonize the ideas of quantum theory and relativity so that we might understand the foundation of the universe more clearly — is a dead end.

The problem I’m (still) having with the book is that Smolin is writing to an audience that is willing to take a steep (try 90 degrees upward) climb in order to understand the various concepts and theories which not only formed the foundation of string theory, but the issues that weren’t resolved through the original work of Newton, Einstein, etc. Smolin lays out in the beginning various fundamental aspects of how things work that we simply don’t know — instilling early that scientific inquiry is, if anything, about the need for curiosity. However, given Smolin’s densely described approach to get us ready to understand his arguments, and while I don’t doubt the necessity, I think he would need to double the length of his book to do so effectively for interested readers who are not physicists.

What is more successful, and the reason I continue to read it, is how Continue reading “The Trouble With The Trouble With Physics”



I don’t typically work from home when I’m writing fiction. Too many distractions which are almost purely mental (as opposed to audible or visual). Reminders of things that need cleaning, fixing, adjustment. Things I’ve put off seemingly forever.

I typically write in coffee shops, sometimes the odd bar. So yes, I am typically more comfortable in a strange place, surrounded by strangers (though to be honest I tend not to seek out locations that are packed), with music that is not my own playing overhead. This may sound odd. After all, what could possibly provide more distraction than that?

I find the hardest variable is music. The last thing I want is to write while music I know is playing. Why? Because if I like a song, then I’ll be focused on it rather than the brittle little fictional world I’m constructing. My foot will inevitably start beating on the floor to the drums. I will anticipate the dynamics, the chorus. Pretty soon lyrics will be passing through my eyes like ticker-tape instead of my characters’ dialogue.

So, though it might seem paradoxical, I prefer the random jukebox that is the playlist of whomever is working at an establishment I’m located in. And you know what? I discovered many years ago that I can write through pretty much any type of music. And the stranger or furthest away from my taste the music is, the easier it is to tune it out. When I’m in a place that isn’t home, with people I don’t know, with music playing that I wouldn’t necessarily choose to listen to, I can more easily fall into that glorious black hole which allows me to sync with the fictional universe on the other side of my consciousness. Continue reading…


The Pause Button

I don’t believe our identities ever settle, to become static. This isn’t to say that they fly willy-nilly like laundry in a windstorm. There are two great wheels: the one inside of us and the one outside. Both move forward regardless of our individual philosophies.

The outside wheel is time. It is the inevitable movement of progress, the passing-on of events, linking like the teeth of a sprocket on a bicycle chain. Whether we stand still or keep moving, this wheel keeps turning.

The inside wheel is our own development: our learning, the expansion of our comprehension of things, as well as our personal growth. It also keeps moving, again, whether we stand still or move.

Development is growth, and growth is sometimes painful, especially when we suspect we have been travelling on a path which does not intuitively serve our needs any longer. The temptation can be strong to “hit the pause button”; to stop looking at how the outer wheel affects the inner wheel, the learnings contained within their interplay. I’m not sure if it would be fair to call this wilful ignorance, but some would.

I’ve known people, particularly those from school, who seem to have “hit the pause button” at some point in their late teens or early twenties: they dress the same, they obsess about the same music, they ask the same questions they asked at that age – it can seem as if they are exist in a still photo of a past universe. I speculate that they see the larger wheel, the world, turning (one cannot wilfully blind oneself from seeing this), but don’t wish to acknowledge that the inner wheel, identity/personality, still turns and evolves also.

It makes me sad, and yes I realize that is a judgement. I don’t wish to categorize people since we live in a society which already puts such an emphasis on a divisive winners/losers binary. It makes me sad because I have a relational tether to those who are in this way: I know what it’s like. It’s also quite common.

I could speculate all day about whether this is fear-induced, shame-induced, whether (from a psychoanalytically informed perspective) there is a concern about narcissistic rupture at play in this. All I know is that it exists, and that the temptation for some to “keep things the way they are”, regardless that this is kind of impossible, has a strong lure.



Self-Consciousness and Self-Awareness

You’ve been leading recently. Leading yourself forward without hesitating when outward support isn’t there, without looking for the comfort that comes from the insular voice – the insular life – that no longer works.

You are switching gears, between the self-conscious and the self-aware. What’s the difference? Here’s an example to demonstrate:

You’re in a restaurant. You’ve been there before. The food is good – reliable. The service, however, has never been their strong suit. Eclectic, you have politely described it to others. You take your seat and the server takes your drink order. Sure enough, you find yourself waiting a long time for the drink to arrive – 10 minutes pass, 15 minutes. All you really want to do is have a meal and relax and not think about why you have to wait. When your drink comes, they take your food order. You hope the initial delay was just a snag – now that your food order was in the queue, it should go back to normal turnaround. And yet… 10 minutes pass… 15 minutes pass… 20 minutes pass… It was just a sandwich… At the point of exasperation, someone – not your server, but another staff member – brings your sandwich. It’s been nearly 30 minutes. You look down and notice that aside from the sandwich on your plate there isn’t a napkin.

Self-conscious you sighs. You don’t want to make a scene. For all you know the server is overworked or there are problems in the kitchen. You sit there, waiting to get his attention. You’re pissed off, but it’s just a sandwich. You eventually Continue reading “Self-Consciousness and Self-Awareness”