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?