The Secret Link Between Jazz and Physics: How Einstein & Coltrane Shared Improvisation and Intuition in Common

Scientists need hobbies. The grueling work of navigating complex theory and the politics of academia can get to a person, even one as laid back as Dartmouth professor and astrophysicist Stephon Alexander. So Alexander plays the saxophone, though at this point it may not be accurate to call his avocation a spare time pursuit, since John Coltrane has become as important to him as Einstein, Kepler, and Newton.




Coltrane, he says in a 7-minute TED talk above, “changed my whole research direction… led to basically a discovery in physics.” Alexander then proceeds to play the familiar opening bars of "Giant Steps." He’s no Coltrane, but he is a very creative thinker whose love of jazz has given him a unique perspective on theoretical physics, one he shares, it turns out, with both Einstein and Coltrane, both of whom saw music and physics as intuitive, improvisatory pursuits.

Alexander describes his jazz epiphany as occasioned by a complex diagram Coltrane gave legendary jazz musician and University of Massachusetts professor Yusef Lateef in 1967. "I thought the diagram was related to another and seemingly unrelated field of study—quantum gravity,” he writes in a Business Insider essay on his discovery, “What I had realized... was that the same geometric principle that motivated Einstein’s theory was reflected in Coltrane’s diagram.”

The theory might “immediately sound like untestable pop-philosophy,” writes the Creators Project, who showcase Alexander’s physics-inspired musical collaboration with experimental producer Rioux (sample below). But his ideas are much more substantive, “a compelling cross-disciplinary investigation,” recently published in a book titled The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe.

Alexander describes the links between jazz and physics in his TED talk, as well as in the brief Wired video further up. “One connection,” he says, is “the mysterious way that quantum particles move.... According to the rules of quantum mechanics," they "will actually traverse all possible paths.” This, Alexander says, parallels the way jazz musicians improvise, playing with all possible notes in a scale. His own improvisational playing, he says, is greatly enhanced by thinking about physics. And in this, he’s only following in the giant steps of both of his idols.

It turns out that Coltrane himself used Einstein’s theoretical physics to inform his understanding of jazz composition. As Ben Ratliff reports in Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, the brilliant saxophonist once delivered to French horn player David Amram an “incredible discourse about the symmetry of the solar system, talking about black holes in space, and constellations, and the whole structure of the solar system, and how Einstein was able to reduce all of that complexity into something very simple.” Says Amram:

Then he explained to me that he was trying to do something like that in music, something that came from natural sources, the traditions of the blues and jazz. But there was a whole different way of looking at what was natural in music.

This may all sound rather vague and mysterious, but Alexander assures us Coltrane’s method is very much like Einstein’s in a way: “Einstein is famous for what is perhaps his greatest gift: the ability to transcend mathematical limitations with physical intuition. He would improvise using what he called gedankenexperiments (German for thought experiments), which provided him with a mental picture of the outcome of experiments no one could perform.”

Einstein was also a musician—as we’ve noted before—who played the violin and piano and whose admiration for Mozart inspired his theoretical work. “Einstein used mathematical rigor,” writes Alexander, as much as he used “creativity and intuition. He was an improviser at heart, just like his hero, Mozart.” Alexander has followed suit, seeing in the 1967 “Coltrane Mandala” the idea that “improvisation is a characteristic of both music and physics.” Coltrane “was a musical innovator, with physics at his fingertips,” and “Einstein was an innovator in physics, with music at his fingertips.”

Alexander gets into a few more specifics in his longer TEDx talk above, beginning with some personal background on how he first came to understand physics as an intuitive discipline closely linked with music. For the real meat of his argument, you'll likely want to read his book, highly praised by Nobel-winning physicist Leon Cooper, futuristic composer Brian Eno, and many more brilliant minds in both music and science.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Daily Meditation Boosts & Revitalizes the Brain and Reduces Stress, Harvard Study Finds

I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but meditation may have saved my life. During a particularly challenging time of overwork, underpay, and serious family distress, I found myself at dangerous, near-stroke levels of high cholesterol and blood pressure, and the beginnings of near-crippling early-onset arthritis. My doctors were alarmed. Something had to change. Unable to make stressful outer circumstances disappear, I had to find constructive ways to manage my responses to them instead. Yoga and meditation made the difference.




I’m hardly alone in this journey. The leading cause of death in the U.S. is heart disease, followed closely by stroke, diabetes, and depression leading to suicide---all conditions exacerbated by high levels of stress and anxiety. In my own case, a changed diet and daily exercise played a crucial role in my physical recovery, but those disciplines would not even have been possible to adopt were it not for the calming, centering effects of a daily meditation practice.

Anecdotes, however, are not evidence. We are bombarded with claims about the miracle magic of “mindfulness,” a word that comes from Buddhism and describes a kind of meditation that focuses on the breath and body sensations as anchors for present-moment awareness. Some form of “mindfulness based stress reduction” has entered nearly every kind of therapy, rehabilitation, corporate training, and pain management, and the word has been a marketing totem for at least a solid decade now. No one ever needs to mention the B-word in all this meditation talk. As one meditation teacher tells his beginner students, “Buddhism cannot exist without mindfulness, but mindfulness can exist perfectly well without Buddhism.”

So, no need to believe in reincarnation, renunciation, or higher states of consciousness, fine. But does meditation really change your brain? Yes. Academic researchers have conducted dozens of studies on how the practice works, and have nearly all concluded that it does. “There’s more than an article a day on the subject in peer-reviewed journals,” says University of Toronto psychiatrist Steven Selchen, “The research is vast now.” One research team at Harvard, led by Harvard Medical School psychology instructor Sara Lazar, published a study in 2011 that shows how mindfulness meditation results in physical changes to the brain.

The paper details the results of MRI scans from 16 subjects “before and after they took part in the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness,” reports the Harvard Gazette. Each of the participants spent “an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises.” After the program, they reported significant stress reduction on a questionnaire, and analysis of their MRIs “found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.”

The Harvard Business Review points to a another survey study in which scientists from the University of British Columbia and the Chemnitz University of Technology “were able to pool data from more than 20 studies to determine which areas of the brain are consistently affected. They identified at least eight different regions.” Highlighting two areas “of particular concern to business professionals,” the HBR describes changes to the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), an area of the frontal lobe associated with self-regulation, learning, and decision-making. The ACC “may be particularly important in the face of uncertain and fast-changing conditions.” Like Lazar’s Harvard study, the researchers also identified “increased amounts of gray matter” in the hippocampus, an area highly subject to damage from chronic stress.

These studies and many others bring mindfulness together with another current psychological buzzword that has proven to be true: neuroplasticity, the idea that we can change our brains for the better—that we are not “hardwired” to repeat patterns of behavior despite our best efforts. In the TEDx Cambridge talk at the top of the post, Lazar explains her results, and connects them with her own experiences with meditation. She is, you’ll see right away, a skeptic, not inclined to accept medical claims proffered by yoga and meditation teachers. But she found that those practices worked in her own life, and also had “scientifically validated benefits” in reducing stress, depression, anxiety, and physical pain. In other words, they work.

None of the research invalidates the Buddhist and Hindu traditions from which yoga and meditation come, but it does show that one needn’t adopt any particular belief system in order to reap the health benefits of the practices. For some secular introductions to meditation, you may wish to try UCLA’s free guided meditation sessions or check out the Meditation 101 animated beginner’s guide above. If you’re not too put off by the occasional Buddhist reference, I would also highly recommend the Insight Meditation Center’s free six-part introduction to mindfulness meditation. Chronic stress is literally killing us. We have it in our power to change the way we respond to circumstances, change the physical structure of our brains, and become happier and healthier as a result.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How to Sound Smart in a TED Talk: A Funny Primer by Saturday Night Live‘s Will Stephen

Is there any subject that can’t be covered in a TED Talk?

Apparently not. You can make a TED Talk about anything, even nothing, as veteran improviser and rookie Saturday Night Live writer, Will Stephen, demonstrated at a recent TEDx event in New York City.

What you shouldn’t do is deviate from TED’s established presentation tropes. Stephen may be punking us with his How to Sound Smart in Your TEDx Talk, above, but aspirant TED speakers should take notes. One can’t practice observational humor without being a keen observer. Stephen's insights are as good a playbook as any for that unmistakeable TED-style delivery:

Use your hands.

Engage the audience by asking them a question that will result in a show of hands…

By show of hands, how many of you have been asked a question before?

Hit ‘em with an endearing, personal anecdote.

Projections will enhance your credibility.

Replay the clip with the sound down, as Stephen suggests, and it’s still obvious what he’s doing - giving a TED Talk.  (The familiar camera work and editing don’t hurt either.)

Even if you’re not planning on nominating yourself to become a TED speaker in the near future, Stephen’s lesson should prove handy next time you’re called upon to do some public speaking, whether running for President or delivering the toast at your best friend’s wedding.

And nothing is certainly not the only topic of substance upon which Stephen can discourse. Witness his Tinder Strategy Powerpoint.

Hmm, maybe there are some TED-proof subjects  after all...

via BoingBoing

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

The Wisdom & Advice of Maurice Ashley, the First African-American Chess Grandmaster

I don't know about you, but when I've thought of chess grandmasters, I've often thought of Russians, northern Europeans, the occasional American, the guy on the Chessmaster box — purely by stereotype, in other words. I've never thought of anyone from, say, Jamaica, the country of birth of Maurice Ashley, not just a chess grandmaster but a chess commentator, writer, app and puzzle designer, speaker and Fellow at the Media Lab at MIT. Since we've only just entered February, known in the United States as Black History Month, why not highlight the Brooklyn-raised (and Brooklyn-park trained) Ashley's status as, in the words of his official web site, "the first African-American International Grandmaster in the annals of the game"?

Given the impressiveness of his achievements, we might also ask what we can learn from him, whether or not we play chess ourselves. You can learn a bit more about Ashley, the work he does, and the work his students have gone on to do, in The World Is a Chess Board, the five-minute Mashable documentary at the top of the post. Even in that short runtime, he has much to say about how the game (which, he clarifies, "we consider an art form") not only reflects life, and reflects the personalities of its players, but teaches those players — especially the young ones who may come from less-than-ideal beginnings — all about focus, determination, choice, and consequence. Perhaps the most important lesson? "You've got to be ready to lose."

Ashley expounds upon the value of chess as a tool to hone the mind in "Working Backward to Solve Problems," a clip from his TED Ed lesson just above. He begins by waving off the misperception, common among non-chess-players, that grandmasters "see ahead" ten, twenty, or thirty moves into the game, then goes on to explain that the sharpest players do it not by looking forward, but by looking backward. He provides a few examples of how using this sort of "retrograde analysis," combined with pattern recognition, applies to problems in a range of situations from proofreading to biology to law enforcement to card tricks. If you ever have a chance to enter into a bet with this man, don't.

That's my advice, anyway. As far as Ashley's advice goes, if we endorse any particular takeaway from what he says here, we endorse the first step of his chess-learning strategy for absolute beginners, which works equally well as the first step of a learning strategy for absolute beginners in anything: "The best advice I could give a young person today is, go online and watch some videos." Stick with us, and we'll keep you in all the videos you need.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Professional Pickpocket Apollo Robbins Explains the Art of Misdirection

You've got to pick-a-pocket or two, boys 

You've got to pick-a-pocket or two. 

Unlike the Artful Dodger and other light-fingered urchins brought to life by Charles Dickens and, more recently, composer Lionel Bartprofessional pickpocket Apollo Robbins confines his practice to the stage.




Past exploits include relieving actress Jennifer Garner of her engagement ring and basketball Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley of a thick bankroll. In 2001, he virtually picked former U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s Secret Service detail clean, netting badges, a watch, Carter’s itinerary, and the keys to his motorcade. (Robbins wisely steered clear of their guns.)

How does he does he do it? Practice, practice, practice... and remaining hyper vigilant as to the things commanding each individual victims's attention, in order to momentarily redirect it at the most convenient moment.

Clearly, he’s a put lot of thought into the emotional and cognitive components. In a TED talk on the art of misdirection, above, he cites psychologist Michael Posner’s “Trinity Model” of attentional networks. He has deepened his understanding through the study of aikido, criminal history, and the psychology of persuasion. He understands that getting his victims to tap into their memories is the best way to temporarily disarm their external alarm bells. His easygoing, seemingly spontaneous banter is but one of the ways he gains marks' trust, even as he penetrates their spheres with a predatory grace.

Watch his hands, and you won’t see much, even after he explains several tricks of his trade, such as securing an already depocketed wallet with his index finger to reassure a jacket-patting victim that it’s right where it belongs. (Half a second later, it’s dropping below the hem of that jacket into Robbins’ waiting hand.) Those paws are fast!

I do wonder how he would fare on the street. His act depends on a fair amount of chummy touching, a physical intimacy that could quickly cause your average straphanger to cry foul. I guess in such an instance, he’d limit the take to one precious item, a cell phone, say, and leave the wallet and watch to a non-theoretical “whiz mob” or street pickpocket team.

Though he himself has always been scrupulous about returning the items he liberates, Robbins does not withhold professional respect for his criminal brothers' moves. One real-life whiz mobber so impressed him during a television interview that he drove over four hours to pick the perp’s brains in a minimum security prison, a confab New Yorker reporter Adam Green described in colorful detail as part of a lengthy profile on Robbins and his craft.

One small detail does seem to have escaped Robbins’ attention in the second demonstration video below, in which reporter Green willingly steps into the role of vic’. Perhaps Robbins doesn’t care, though his mark certainly should. The situation is less QED than XYZPDQ.

While you’re taking notice, don’t forget to remain alert to what a potential pickpocket is wearing. Such attention to detail may serve you down at the station, if not onstage.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. The sleeping bag-like insulating properties of her ankle-length faux leopard coat make her very popular with the pickpockets of New York. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Adam Savage’s Animated Lesson on the Simple Ideas That Lead to Great Scientific Discoveries

Educator, industrial design fabricator and Myth Busters cohost Adam Savage is driven by curiosity.

Science gets his wheels turning faster than the notched disc Hippolyte Fizeau used to measure the speed of light in 1849.

In his TED-Ed talk on how simple ideas lead to scientific discoveries, above, Savage zips across the centuries to share the work of three game changers - Fizeau, Eratosthenes, and Richard Feynman (one of the de facto patron saints of science-related TED talks).

I found it difficult to wrap my head around the sheer quantities of information Savage shoehorns into the seven minute video, giving similarly voluble and omnivorous mathmusician Vi Hart a run for her money. Clearly, he understands exactly what he’s talking about, whereas I had to take the review quiz in an attempt to retain just a bit of this new-to-me material.

I’m glad he glossed over Feynman’s childhood fascination with inertia in order to spend more time on the lesser known of his three subjects. Little Feynman’s observation of his toy wagon is charming, but the Nobel Prize winner’s life became an open book to me with Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick’s excellent graphic biography. What's left to discover?

How about Eratosthenes? I'd never before heard of the Alexandrian librarian who calculated the Earth's circumference with astonishing accuracy around 200 BC. (It helped that he was good at math and geography, the latter of which he invented.) Inspiration fuels the arts, much as it does science, and I'd like to learn more about him.

Ditto Fizeau, whom Savage describes as a less sexy scientific swashbuckler than methodical fact checker, which is what he was doing when he wound up cracking the speed of light in 1849. Two centuries earlier Galileo used lanterns to determine that light travels at least ten times faster than sound. Fizeau put Galileo's number to the test, experimenting with his notched wheel, a candle, and mirrors and ultimately setting the speed of light at a much more accurate 313,300 Km/s. Today’s measurement of 299792.458 km/s was arrived at using technology unthinkable even a few decades ago.

Personally, I would never think to measure the speed of light with something that sounds like a zoetrope, but I might write a play about someone who did.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her play, Fawnbook, opens in New York City later this fall. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Walt Whitman’s Poem “A Noiseless Patient Spider” Brought to Life in Three Animations

How can a modern educator go about getting a student to connect to poetry?

Forget the emo kid pouring his heart out into a spiral journal.

Ditto the youthful slam poetess, wielding pronunciation like a cudgel.

Think of someone truly hard to reach, a reluctant reader perhaps, or maybe just someone (doesn’t have to be a kid) who’s convinced all poetry sucks.

You could stage a rap battle.

Take the drudgery out of memorization by finding a pop melody well suited to singing Emily Dickinson stanzas.

Or appeal to the YouTube generation via short animations, as educator Justin Moore does in the TED-Ed lesson, above.

Animation, like poetry, is often a matter of taste, and Moore’s lesson hedges its bets by enlisting not one, but three animator-narrator teams to interpret Walt Whitman’s "A Noiseless Patient Spider.”

Originally published as part of the poem "Whispers of Heavenly Death," and included in the 1891 "deathbed edition" of Leaves of Grass, the poem equates the soul’s desperate struggle to connect with something or someone with that of a spider, seeking to build a web in a less than ideal location.

Two of the animators, Jeremiah Dickey and Lisa LaBracio launch themselves straight toward the “filament, filament, filament.” Seems like a solid plan. An industrious spider industriously squirting threads out of its nether region creates a cool visual that echoes both Charlotte’s Web and the repetition within the poem.

Mahogany Browne’s narration of Dickey’s painting on glass mines the stridency of slam. Narrator Rives gives a more low key performance with LaBracio’s scratchboard interpretation.

In-between is Joanna Hoffman’s spiderless experimental video, voiced with a wee bit of vocal fry by Joanna Hoffman. Were I to pick the one least likely to capture a student’s imagination…

Once the student has watched all three animations, it’s worth asking what the poem means. If no answer is forthcoming, Moore supplies some questions that might help stuck wheels start turning. Question number five strikes me as particularly germane, knowing the ruinous effect the teenage tendency to gloss over unfamiliar vocabulary has on comprehension.

Ultimately, I prefer the below interpretation of Kristin Sirek, who uses her YouTube channel to read poetry, including her own, out loud, without any bells or whistles whatsoever.

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

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