Do scientific explanations have to ruin wonder? Stargazing and more with songwriter Jim Fitzpatrick

Jim Fitzpatrick and I met on an airport shuttle from Phoenix to Flagstaff. It’s not a particularly interesting place to meet someone, but an accident on the highway left us stranded at a gas station with lots of time to chat. Somehow the topic fell to music and it turned out we have a lot in common. Jim’s a musician and song writer who even expressed enthusiasm for Canadian music. We bonded over a shared love of Built to Spill and he patiently listened to my stories of interviewing bands when I was younger. Jim’s also a teacher and was traveling with his dad to a science writing conference. I could hardly imagine a better match to chat with on a long shuttle ride.

The next time I saw Jim was later that week at the Lowell Observatory. I was attending the same conference, and the Observatory was generously hosting us for a reception. Jim and I and lots of other eager folks looked in awe at the Andromeda Galaxy through the Clark telescope. He asked with enthusiastic curiosity about the need to use red lights in the telescope dome. We exclaimed about how cool it was to stand outside together and watch the ISS pass overhead. Walking between the telescope dome and the reception room, though, he turned and said “The sky is so beautiful but sometimes I don’t want to know the explanation. Explaining it can just ruin it.”

“What?” I thought, “We’re enjoying a lovely evening of sciencey star-gazing and you don’t like science?” I didn’t say that out loud, but something about it didn’t seem right. This was the same person who had reminded me that the song Randy Described Eternity is so beautifully evocative of the vastness of space, the same one who just moments earlier had confessed to probably writing too many songs about the moon. Something didn’t seem right at all. How could someone who is reflective and thoughtful and in awe of the natural world not want to understand it. Isn’t that part of its beauty? The question stuck with me, and I had to find out what he really meant.

Jim and I stayed in touch and quickly found another shared love: Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. Working with Daniel Lanois, Eno wrote a captivating ambient score for Al Reinhart’s documentary footage of the Apollo missions. In the liner notes, he explained that the music was his attempt to replace the glib and chatty journalistic narration that had accompanied the original broadcasts. Instead of reducing the achievement to something that could be melodramatically recounted like any other news story, his soundtrack highlighted how completely the Apollo missions changed the boundaries of human life. “What this film can do is to present a unique mixture of feelings that quite possibly no human had experienced before,” he wrote, “I hope this music will assist in that.”

It was that same quality that had captivated Jim when he first saw the film and heard Eno’s soundtrack. “I just felt like it complemented the images. These really slow-moving images of being on the moon or of the Earth slowly rising over the moon, these things that are so huge and they’re happening so slowly.  The music really complemented that and captured the beauty of what it might feel like to be in space.”

He also identified with Eno’s complaints about the original journalistic coverage. Like he said about the nebula while at the Lowell, sometimes an explanation can take away from an experience. Eno’s music, though, does something different. “This kind of music is atmospheric so the listener can add the emotion that they want to while it also complements the information that’s already there, the visual information.  Whereas when you have somebody who’s talking through this huge significant thing like a moon landing, it’s like they’re trying to tell you how to feel and think about something.”

School science seems to be a particularly bad offender in this regard. Like many others, Jim doesn’t necessarily have found memories of his science classes. “I hated doing the experiments because they were so technical. You know, fill up this beaker with however many millilitres or whatever of this chemical.” Like the Apollo journalists chattering over a massive human achievement, the enormity and wonder is lost in those experiments. “When it comes to that point I guess it was the hyper-focused little bits of information that I didn’t care for.  I wanted the bigger questions.  When people explain things to me, especially astronomy or physics, sub-atomic physics, I just have more questions.”

Does it have to be that way though? It turns out that Jim first heard Eno’s soundtrack at school. A teacher with a passion for space exploration had created his own course and used documentaries and space footage to teach about the cultural and scientific significance of space and the space race. Students had the chance to understand space in a different way. “Like with music it leaves more room to enter that inner dialogue and think about how it would feel to be there,” Jim explained.

Jim also had another teacher who got that, who tried to find ways to understand in a different way, one that didn’t reduce the wonder. He remembered his 8th grade science teacher one day posing the question “What is the biggest and the smallest?” There is so much room in that question, you could go in so many directions to understand it. He recalled the experience with enthusiasm, “Like what’s the smallest thing that we know about in the world?  We said the atom but he replied, ‘oh, well an atom is made up of these’ and then, ‘well what are those made of?,’ and then ‘Ah!  They’re made up of these,’ ‘What are those made up of?,’ ‘Ah, they’re made up of these’ and on and on it went. And then he went on to talk about the opposite end of the spectrum, about largest. That really blew my mind because there’s an infinite loop that even as you were continuing on, it’s possible that there is no biggest and no smallest, which is really mind boggling.  The concept of infinity is pretty awesome. That’s why I don’t like questions that get answered all the time. If the question’s big enough, if it’s a big, giant open-ended question, then it leads to other giant open-ended questions. Then I love it!”

Ah-ha. So Jim doesn’t dislike science, he just doesn’t like the version of science that reduces things to simple answers that can be repeated on tests, the kind that simplifies the questions so much that they’re not interesting anymore.

His song-writing reflects this, emphasizing the expanse of the world and what we do and don’t understand about it. That sense of exploring the biggest things on Earth isn’t foreign to him. One song, called Walk in the Pacific and recorded as part of his ambient project Cup Collector, captures the feeling of his first visit to the Pacific Ocean and is a careful observation of the rhythm of tides, reflected in slow and heaving chord changes. Songs like that take understanding and thoughtfulness but avoid the reduction to simple answers. Another, The Straw Dog, released as Falsetto Boy, asks a streaming series of questions on the nature of being, of life and of death. Clearly, Jim wants to understand the world, just not in a way that shuts down asking more questions.

Music allows that kind of understanding. It’s accepted that there is room for thinking differently about it, for interpreting and for responding in one’s own way. Public and student perceptions often miss that this is also true for science. Yes, there are equations to be used and lab protocols to be mastered, but there are also a lot of big and open-ended problems. More often than not, the reason to do science is to some degree wonder and curiosity and the chance to ask more and bigger questions.

“At least when I was a kid, I didn’t see scientists as people who were immersed in feelings of wonder,” Jim said thoughtfully after we talked about his 8th grade teacher. “I saw them as very technical people but you know I also think there are a lot of dreamers out there who are scientists.” Just like songwriters.

So thanks to Brian Eno and a great teacher, we find common ground again. Scientific explanations don’t have to ruin the beauty of a galaxy or the moon. Like music they also enhance it, opening up new ways of thinking and giving us each room to ask more and bigger questions. I’m feeling lucky to have met someone on an airport shuttle to remind me of that.

You can find more of Jim’s music through: his singer-songwriter releases as Falsetto Boy, his ambient/shoegaze project Cup Collector, and his collaboration with drummer Jordan Knecht Muscle Brain.

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4 Comments

  1. Nicely done. You gently persuade that we can keep the dreamy part alive without making the technical part clunky (technical term).

    Even though your article is competing with mine (3 quarks daily contest) – I heartily recommend yours.
    David Dilworth,
    CosmologyScience.com

    Reply
    • Thanks so much David. I really appreciate you kind comment.
      Best of luck to you and your post in the 3 Quarks competition too!

      Reply
  2. Excellent writing that discusses a topic that’s intrigued me for as long as I can remember. I like the approach of exploring someone else’s thoughts and using them to discover your own — this, it seems to me, is a fine example of showing rather than telling. Well done, Marie-Claire.

    Reply
  3. Great article, Marie-Claire.

    Reply

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