Worlds collide: Music vs. the Large Hadron Collider

The worlds of music and quantum physics collide as musicians react to the mysterious experiments of the Large Hadron Collider.

Haven’t heard of the Large Hadron Collider? It’s a giant circular tube under the Swiss-French border that shoots small particles at each other. Costing over 7 billion Euros, particles whizz around inside the machine at almost the speed of light. At the flick of a switch, the particles are smashed into each other, breaking apart to reveal, hopefully, even smaller particles.

Why? In the pursuit of the holy grail of physics – a unified theory between the big and the small.

Physics used to be palpable. It was about the stuff we can see – apples falling on heads and lumbering juggernauts like planets and galaxies. These were the halcyon days of Newtonian physics, named after Isaac Newton whose head felt the full force of that falling apple.

Newtonian physics was great at understanding the visible universe. It helped us put monkeys into space. But pesky quantum physics spoiled the Newtonian party. To really understand ‘star stuff’, it turns out, we need to go small. Really small. Quantum small.

The quantum world is a place where, as Bill Bryson explains, scientists find themselves ‘adrift in a bewildering realm of particles and antiparticles, where things pop in and out of existence in spans of time that make nanoseconds look plodding and uneventful, where everything is strange.’

It’s an esoteric and invisible world in which oddly named particles – muons, taus and quarks – dance around unpredictably with little respect for space and time. It’s a world of vibrating strings, multiple dimensions (at least eleven so far), branes (don’t ask), and cats in boxes.

Science geeks hope the Large Hadron Collider will sort out some of this messy strangeness by revealing the fundamental nuts and bolts that make up everything. But success is not guaranteed. This could just be another step down into the abyss of the infentesimally small.

With so much uncertainty, so much mystery, so much bizarreness, it’s no wonder the Large Hadron Collider has sparked imaginations. The Collider appears in novels, movies, television series and video games. Doomsdayers have prophesied that that we will all be sucked into oblivion by black holes created inside the Collider. Reason suggests otherwise, but this hasn’t stopped hoaxers having a field day. A time traveller was found rummaging through bins at the Collider in April 2010. Some scientists have predicted that the machine is doomed to be sabotaged by the future.

Musicians too have found aesthetic inspiration in the spooky physics surrounding the Large Hadron Collider. As this Large Hadron Collider playlist from MySpace shows, music inspired by the Collider ranges from the sublime to the bizarre; from easy listening to pains in the ears; from pop songs to aural soundscapes; white noise to Bossa Nova.

Probably the most well known is LH Rap by Alpinekat & Will Barras. As reported in the Telegraph, rapper Alpinekat is Kate McAlpine, who worked at the Collider’s press office.

The song has been a huge success, its Youtube video having been viewed over 6 million times. Its impeccable science content has been lauded as educational.

Not so ReyoB ekiM, who, in Rage againzt tha machine raps: ‘Rebel against the Switzerland supercollider/The’ve got the remote that pushes the button that sets the whole world on fire’. To which the ever level-headed Alpinekat counters with her Black Hole Rap, explaining the science behind why we need not fear the Collider.

Switzerland’s Punch! taps into anxiety culture with their song Entelekies, in which an accident in the Collider unleashes unruly ‘entelekies’ from the thirteenth dimension. Punch! has nominated itself to be official spokesband for the Collider: ‘We all want the LHC to succeed, but no one wants to go for holiday in dimension 13 or release the Entelekies, which could…ride along the superstrings infecting minds of you and me.’

Another anxious musician is the UK’s Dalmatian Rex and the Eigentones. In his song, A weird dream about spoons and the Large Hadron Collider, Dalmatian has a weird dream after eating too much cheese before bedtime: ‘I woke up in the Hadron Collider /And then I observed a black hole/Inside was a sexdecillion spoons/that’s a lot of spoons’. It is indeed a lot of spoons: a sexdecillion is 1051, a one with 51 zeroes in tow.

The USA’s Prizzy Prizzy Please warns of the dangers of the Collider. As Nick Selminfectious explains, the band’s song Large Hadron Collider ‘sketches out the conflict between scientists and commoners concerning the super-collider (“Give it all that you got, if it’s the best thing that you do/Cause we’re the brink of something special….Then the people said, oh, no, don’t turn it on”), before a time traveler visits mid-song to foretell the collider’s apocalyptic impact.’

But the music inspired by the Collider is not all fun and nuttiness. As the playlist shows, music inspired by the Collider can be anything from moody and emo to menacing and downright unlistenable.

At the punkier end of the spectrum is New Zealand’s The Physicks, whose Large Hadron Collider , has a certain Kiwi catchiness seeping out between its noisy cracks. The band seems smitten by matters of theoretical physics, their other songs including ‘blackhole’, ‘protons are a lie’, and ‘piece of pi’. But be warned, these songs are not for the faint of heart.

There are many menacing instrumentals on the list, top billing being Finland’s Outo Tuttava. Others, though, are somewhat more restricted in appeal and are positioned well down the playlist. Listen at your peril.

In the mood, ambient and electronic camp is the UK’s Friendly Child, aka Tomoko Matsumoto, who created seven improvised soundscapes dedicated to the Collider over one weekend in September 2008. Little dream and If this is the end? are peaceful meditations compared to the white noise and chaos of other instrumental tracks.

If none of these styles are to your taste, you may like to listen to the Morriston Orpheus Choir’s video of a performance held at a concert in October 2008 to commemorate the opening of the Collider. It’s a peaceful track as only a Welsh male choir can be. A number of acts were at the inauguration concert, including Center of the Universe, who played some pretty esoteric stuff from its Simulacra album. Its more accessible song The start, the middle, the end, is included on the playlist.

It seems music and the Large Hadron Collider are destined to be intimately interconnected. Even if the collisions inside the Collider machine come to nought, at least there has been a fruitful collision of another kind: between the worlds of music and quantum physics.

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