Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Utopias - 3

" Sometimes we find ourselves in the presence of a form that guides and encloses our earliest dreams. For a painter a tree is composed in its roundness. But a poet continues that dream from higher up. He knows that when a thing becomes isolated, it becomes round, assumes a figure of being that is concentrated upon itself. In Rilke's Poèmes francais, this is how the walnut tree lives and commands attention. Here, again around a lone tree, which is the centre of a world, the dome of the sky becomes round, in accordance with the rule of cosmic poetry."

     Gaston Bachelard  -  the Phenomenology of Roundness  - 

                      the Poetics of Space  ( 1958)

Utopias 3 on blurb website

Utopias – 3 The Music of the Spheres.

     Algorithms that forecast weather or predict climate change can
welcome to the Anthropocene
be represented through the medium of computer generated images. These data visualisations are the modern equivalent of cave paintings of the Palaeolithic era that suggest early attempts to create an account of nature. The emergent idea of nature as a concealed power echoing everyday life, seems to have found a literal expression in those caves. Iegor Reznikoff found that the positions of paintings or symbolic dots coincide with the locations in caves that have specific reverberant qualities. (1) Singing and the first music possibly took place in these natural echo chambers. Echoes out of the dark produce an sense of an uncanny evoked response from an invisible world. These underground sites mark the start of the human species' fascination with nature that would eventually be explored through scientific and artistic enquiry.

      In the 6th century B.C. Pythagoras is said to have been intrigued by the different pitches of sound make by blacksmiths' hammers. As the story goes, Pythagoras noticed that specific weights of hammers, and later, distinct lengths of strings, produced the musical notes that were already known. He discovered the octave, and understood that it was the result of physical differences that can be measured. The idea of number, proportion and scale became a new paradigm in an early form of natural philosophy known as the music of the spheres. Astrology, alchemy and mathematics were recruited to explain nature in an imaginative scheme of correspondences. Followers of the music of the spheres believed that the metal lead, bears, the herb hellebore and the planet Saturn shared the same attributes because lead is heavy, bears are slow moving, hellebore promotes sleep and Saturn (relative to stars) moves slowly across the sky. (2)                                                                          


    Philosophers imagined the Sun, Moon, stars and planets rotated at different speeds on a system of crystal spheres. This vast machine would have generated characteristics in humans, animals, plants and minerals on Earth via inaudible celestial music emanating from the spheres. The 'sub lunar world' (our world) was a zone of change and flux, whereas the celestial spheres were thought to be an unchanging region of perfection. Until the end of the Renaissance the music of the spheres explained how specific forms, living and mineral, arose from the generality of existence.  Before the separation of science and art, the music of the spheres was a kind of cosmology which described how form and function emerged from the nexus of creation guided by the organising power of music

     Persian paradise gardens were already designed as a rectangular border
enclosing a watered and cultivated area protected from the arid exterior. They often contained fountains and water features that symbolised the mythical four rivers of creation - the equivalent of our modern belief in the four fundamental forces of nature; gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force. A fascination with the mystical significance of numbers is widespread throughout history: the four humours of the human body, the five mythical elements (Earth, Water, Air, Fire and Aether), the seven classical planets (the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn), seven metals and (for Ptolemy) seven 'states of mind'.

     Plato believed that beauty was an expression of a hidden world of perfection composed of invisible geometrical shapes such as the pyramid, the cube and the sphere. The irregularity of real objects, plants and bodies resulted from their distance from perfection. Just as astrologers said that the stars tell us how to lead better lives, Plato said that visible beauty was inseparable from moral beauty. What we would today call 'psychological well-being' was for Plato a question of living a life in accordance with the celestial harmony - a synchronisation of the human soul with the harmony of the spheres. The music of the spheres was a philosophy for regulating all human affairs, not just an explanation of nature.

     In A.D. 1595 astronomers such as Johannas Kepler were still trying to incorporate the music of the spheres into the emerging discipline of science. He was excited to find that the ratios of the distances between the orbits of the then known planets could be explained by visualising platonic solids situated in the spaces between them. For the five known planets there were five Platonic solids; the tetrahedron, the cube, the
octahedron, the dodecahedron, and the icosahedron. Placed in a three-dimensional model of the solar system the points of these shapes would touch the orbits of each planet. For a while this concept appeared to verify the existence of the music of the spheres, but more planets were discovered along with comets with highly elliptical orbits. Comets would have smashed through the crystal spheres had they existed. (2)

     The idea that celestial spheres controlled nature  was eclipsed by the belief that the essence of matter and life was from within, and potentially under the control of human intelligence. By the 17th century references to Platonic shapes were limited to art, and a style within formal gardens such as those at Vaux-le-Vicompte, Versailles and Chantilly. The elaborately geometrical gardens, with cones and spheres represented by topiary, were part of the language of power. The grid pattern of latitude and longitude that mapped
     the world also enabled the exploitation of its resources and the colonisation of Africa and America by European nations.

      As cartography and science advanced throughout the 17th and 18th centuries it became easier to accommodate irregularity of form within observational frames of reference. The true shapes of continents were
recognised after they had initially been imagined to be geometric. John Constable owned a copy of Researches about Atmospheric Phaenomena by Thomas Forster. Published in 1815, the book demonstrated that clouds could be classified by shape and type.  The morphology of plants and animals was analysed with algebra in 1912.(3) The periodic table characterised the elements and threw light on the compounds they form. (Gold has 79 electrons and mercury has 80 electrons). Elaborate schemes of analogies were not required to explain nature after science established that structure and form comes from below and not from the stars. In 1925
Wolfgang Pauli showed that complexity in matter arises from simple rules. The music of the spheres turns out to be ‘shells’ of electrons that orbit the nucleus of the atom.

     The discoveries of craters on the Moon in 1609 and sunspots in 1610 had already suggested that nature is not perfect. 19th century theories of entropy and evolution showed that physical processes are contingent on the flow of energy (which will cease when it is evenly distributed) and that natural selection creates species that are only just good enough for the environment in which they survive. Improvements to form and physiology are preserved ad hoc by DNA. In recent history the concept of perfection has been replaced by relativism and the belief that systems (mechanical, living and styles of art) can only be optimally organised for their particular time and place. Even the Gaia theory is not concerned by the potential destruction of 'perfect' earth systems. It claims that we are at risk if we pollute the Earth, not because we have defied a perfect 'world soul' (as Plato might have said) but because the self-regulating meta-ecosystem is not structured for us, but merely in a way that includes us. Further overexploitation could cause it change to a new state in which life continues but without our species, like a horse unseating its rider, or shaking off a fly.

(1)   Sound resonance in prehistoric times: A study of Paleolithic painted caves and rocks.Reznikof, I : Journal of the Acoustical society of America 123,3603 (2008)
(2)    James, J. The Music of the Spheres; Music, Science and the Natural Order of the Universe: 1993: London: Abacus.
(3)   Thompson, D’Arcy Wentworth. On Growth and Form: 1912: Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Music of the Spheres BBC Radio 4 In Our Time