How Mozart Unlocked a Galactic Secret

February 14, 2016

As he wrestled with his theory of relativity, Albert Einstein could not have imagined that the confirmation of his life’s work had been vibrating ever closer through the fabric of space and time for more than 1.2 billion years.

What Einstein had understood from the start was that he would not achieve his goal of describing the essential structure of the cosmos with just conscious thought and the delineations of logic.

He instead relied upon intuition and what he described as “the architecture of music.” He would grab his violin or plunk down at the piano when he seemed stuck.

“Whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in music,” his older son, Hans, would recount. “That would usually resolve all his difficulties.”

Einstein declared that a great scientist had to be an artist before all else. He sought and found inspiration in the work of Mozart above that of all others.

“Mozart’s music is so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master,” Einstein once said.

Einstein later described Mozart’s work as “a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe itself,” adding, “like all great beauty, his music was pure simplicity.”

The biographer Walter Isaacson would quote an Einstein friend describing the great thinker as playing his violin in the kitchen late into the night. The music would suddenly stop.

“I’ve got it!” Einstein would exclaim.

He did not so much envision as intuit, feel a cosmos where space and time were a vibrant whole, expanding and shrinking, animated by gravitational waves generated by the motion of matter.

The most powerful waves he contemplated were those that would be generated by one star orbiting another. But even those waves would not be powerful enough over great distances to be measured and thereby confirmed. He himself is said to have sometimes doubted his conjectures.

In 1952, the Juilliard String Quartet gave Einstein a private concert at his Princeton, New Jersey home. The man who could intuit across vast reaches of space and time was now 72 and as subject as anybody else to aging as calibrated by the human life span. He initially declined when the quartet asked him to join them, explaining that a decline in manual dexterity had led him to give away his violin.

The quartet had a spare and asked Einstein what he wanted to play. Einstein agreed and chose a Mozart quintet.

“Dr. Einstein hardly referred to the notes on the musical score,” the first violinist, Robert Mann, would later say, as reported by The New York Times. “While his out-of-practice hands were fragile, his coordination, sense of pitch, and concentration were awesome.”

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