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“There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres,”

The   Music   of   the   Spheres

To this day the philosopher and "father of numbers ", Pythagoras of Samos, remains a mystery. None of his writings survive today and his achievements are available to us only through the work of historians and his many devoted followers. But we do know Pythagoras was, in a sense, the very first mathematical physicist and also the one who brought order to the chaotic world of music.


In an almost certainly apocryphal tale, it was told that Pythagoras' discovery of the principles of consonance and dissonance was sparked by his happening upon four blacksmiths hammers.


According to the second-century Enchiridion Harmonices by Syrian mathematician Nicomachus of Gerasa, comparing the tones sounded by these four hammers and investigating each hammer’s relative weight, he noticed that the sounds of the first and second hammers seemed to be ‘singing the same note (an octave), and when Pythagoras observed that their weights of 12lb and 6lb formed an exact ratio of 2:1, he sensed there was a pattern behind it.


The third hammer he heard sounded a perfect fourth with the lowest of the hammers, while the fourth hammer sounded a perfect fifth, and their corresponding weights of 9 lb and 8 lb which formed ratios of 4:3 and 3:2 when placed alongside the large 12 lbs hammer. 


Pythagoras returned home to test out his theory using strings, exploring these same ratios of 2:1, 4:3 and 3:2, but now comparing the length of strings and the tone they produced when made to vibrate. 

He found his theory worked perfectly: the principles of musical harmony were based on the mathematical foundations of the natural world.


But Pythagoras did not stop here. He was certain that such theory must extend beyond the earth and into the heavens:

After the discovery of this concepts, he came to the conclusion that based in physical truths and metaphysical beliefs, the divine and poetic order of the universe could be found. He believed that we could explain the cosmos through his wave theory of the string in a system that came to be known as musica universalis or the ‘music of the spheres’.

‘If earthly objects such as strings or pieces of metal make sounds when put in motion, so too must the Moon, the planets, the Sun and even the highest stars. As these heavenly objects are forever in motion, orbiting the Earth, surely they must be forever producing sound.’


Pythagoras concluded that each of the planets, through their orbits, must produce a particular note according to its distance from an immovable centre. Just as differing the length of a string adjusts its pitch when the string vibrates, so these varying distances must produce different tones: the ‘music of spheres’.

Pythagoras’ theory is of course now wholly discredited and for much of the people this idea is nothing but an ancient believe that doesn't apply to our current concept of the universe. But there are many others that believe that the theory only needs a different interpretation. 

Douglas Kahn’s insistence on the pervasiveness of allegory finds resonance in a contemporary cosmological view. Within particle physics, since the 1970s, string theory has been an actively researched model for understanding the universe. Rather than visualizing the smallest particles of matter as minuscule points, string theory posits that quarks and electrons may be visualized as sub-microscopic “strings” that vibrate, much like on a musical instrument.The tone at which a string vibrates determines its physical form. 

Many theoretical physicists, including Stephen Hawking, believe that string theory could be the “theory of everything”, a fundamental way of describing the makeup of the universe.

What do you believe? 

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