A composer and an astrophysicist embrace feeling lost in space.
By Lydialyle Gibson, The University of Chicago Magazine Print edition
UChicago astrophysicist Michael Turner—who coined the term “dark energy,” envisioned the accelerating universe, and helped establish the new field of particle astrophysics—was explaining to composer Philip Glass, AB’56, how scientists, unlike artists, are “just plumbers.” It’s one thing to discover how the pipes fit together, and another to forge them yourself. “There really are laws of physics,” Turner said, “and we plod along and we figure them out, and sometimes they’re really complicated and it takes a long time, but we’re not really creating anyth—”
“Are you having fun?” Glass interrupted, a note of feigned worry in his voice giving way to a teasing smile. It was hard to tell whether Glass meant the pursuit of science or the conversation he and Turner were having, seated in matching wingback chairs before a packed audience in a darkened Manhattan theater. The two had come together on a rainy September night for a University alumni event called “Einstein as a Cultural Figure”: the composer who wrote the groundbreaking 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach and the scientist whose work furthers the field that Albert Einstein helped build.
“Yes, definitely,” Turner answered, suddenly disarmed, easing into a smile. “So we’re both having fun, right?”
The whole night was pretty much like that. Over 90 minutes, while a moderator sat quietly off to the side, Turner and Glass strolled through one digression after another—Mendel’s garden peas, Galileo’s telescopes, Beethoven’s ear trumpet, Pollock’s paint splatters—winding a loose orbit around the ideas of creation and discovery, thought and perception, art and science. Glass recalled encountering Einstein as a ten-year-old boy in Baltimore, an experience that affected him deeply. “I belonged to a telescope club when I was 11 years old,” he said. He arrived at Chicago as an aspiring scientist and mathematics major. Even after reaching the “sad conclusion” that “I would not make a very good scientist” and turning instead to music, Glass remained captivated by the concepts that first exhilarated him; his oeuvre includes operas about astronomers Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei. In 1987 he wrote The Light, a piece marking the 100th anniversary of the Michelson-Morley experiment, which demonstrated for the first time that light waves travel on their own, not, as long supposed, through a “luminiferous aether” medium.
Turner, who directs the University’s Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, kept trying to define the boundaries between art and science, reluctant to overstep his territory, returning often to the notion of scientists as plumbers, workmen—“discoverers.” Creative, sure, but not creators. Glass kept trying to blur those lines, insisting on the poetry in science and the subjectivity in math, the universal impulse to push oneself to the limit of what is known and then try to go beyond it. Sometimes he seemed to literally be drawing himself closer to Turner, inching forward in his chair. “My basic feeling is that we”—artists and scientists—“find everything,” Glass said.
“But what does that mean?” Turner asked.
“That it’s already there, just as you said. It’s not that we create it or discover it; it’s that it stands revealed.”
He offered as an example Claude Monet, who produced many of his famous paintings as his eyesight was failing, the lily ponds and poppy fields and haystacks growing muddy as cataracts closed in. “So, do we see more than he did with those paintings, or did he see more? Are they an imperfect version, or a super-perfect version?” said Glass, who also talked about composing music now that his own hearing has begun to falter.
At one point, the painter Chuck Close, a friend of Glass’s who was in the audience, took the microphone to say that artists don’t think of themselves as creators, but as problem solvers. “I think, as a matter of fact,” he said, revising, “the better artist is not really a problem solver, because everything you can think of is what someone else has thought,” but instead a problem creator. “How do you put yourself in a position where none of those answers work?”
“I agree with him,” Glass said. Turner nodded too. “Every time science asks a question,” he said, the answer that comes back “creates two new questions.”
There were times when one man’s words almost blended into the other’s, as when Glass and then Turner described the breakthrough that comes after weeks of staring at the same notes, the same data set, the same canvas. Or when Turner brought up the influence of ever more precise and powerful instruments. In many ways, modern science began when Galileo started building telescopes, Turner said—an idea that led Glass directly to Frédéric Chopin. In Poland some years ago, Glass visited the great composer’s piano. “It was a little bitty thing!” he said. “The music Chopin could visualize did not fit that piano.” Now, after a couple of centuries of piano evolution, musicians can play Chopin in a way the composer himself never could. “The music,” Glass said, “seemed to demand the technology.”
Finally, Glass and Turner wound toward a discussion of time’s effects on artists and scientists themselves. Growing older alters a scientist’s contributions, Turner said, noting, “I see it in myself—the more you know, it cramps your creativity. When I look at my younger colleagues, they don’t know enough to know when an idea’s stupid. And sometimes an idea is just stupid and crazy enough to be right.”
That’s a problem Glass knows well, he said. “When I’m writing a piece, if I know what I’m going to write, I know I don’t have much chance of writing anything good. It’s only when I’m completely lost that I feel there’s a chance that some sort of—”
“And the more you know, the less lost you are,” Turner finished.
Alumni Club Program Committee Notes:
The PC would like to recognize the role Julia Pagnamenta (AB '10) played in making this event possible.
The "moderator [who] sat quietly off to the side" was William Scheckel (AB '12).