Chin Music of the Spheres

Last week Bobbie and I celebrated our fifth anniversary of her teaching me algebra—five years of joy laced with the tears of frustration as we sat at the dining room table, sipping beer and solving equations. But I’ve learned a lot more than the nuts and bolts of mathematics. I’ve grown to appreciate the wonder and mystery of it. Bob and I love learning. Last year she resumed piano lessens and now brings Bach to life. I study and write philosophy as a hobby, and of course we produce Red Stitches.

Over the past few years I’ve discovered wondrous links between music, mathematics, philosophy, and baseball—a sort of metaphysical unity that excites me. Baseball has always been the sport of numbers. Its records require calculations that have soared to sophisticated levels with the advent of Sabremetrics (from SABR, Society for American Baseball Research). The beauty of the baseball field has inspired poetry, and the game’s history and drama has prompted songs, essays and novels.

“Mathematics is, I believe, the chief source of the belief in eternal and exact truths.” So wrote Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy. Russell continued: “In Plato, Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, and Kant there is an intimate blending of religion and reasoning, of moral aspiration with logical admiration of what is timeless, which comes from Pythagoras . . . . “

Once when I was sitting next to Bob at the piano, I noted the elaborate system of musical notations—the lines, clefs, notes and various symbols—and I was struck by the similarity found in mathematical symbols. I thought it wonderful that symbols on paper could leap into something beautiful—whether in music or in mathematics.

Bertrand Russell was right. Pythagoras saw in music this blend of mathematical logic and metaphysical longing. He discovered that the pitch of a musical note is proportionate to the length of the string that produces it. He saw that intervals between harmonious sound frequencies form simple numerical ratios. He thought the heavenly bodies may emit their own unique hum. So from the ancient Greeks, 2500 years ago, comes the phrase, “music of the spheres.”

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