The Cartwheel Galaxy and Musical Instruments
Just as songs repeat in choruses, formations in space take understandable shapes. Pictured here are the large Cartwheel galaxy and two smaller companion galaxies. NASA / Illustration by Emily Lakiewicz

I am not a scientist, but I do practice a kind of science that is related to math and astronomy. It's hard to imagine, but I can see the connection when I look at the images from the James Webb Telescope. In astronomy and music, elements "solve" into familiar chemicals and melody.

When a high-powered telescope provides instantly recognizable patterns floating hundreds of millions of light years away, it's hard not to ask how that is possible. What causes us to create and respond to repetition in our art?

I told a student to repeat a phrase after listening to him sing in class. When he asked why. I didn't have a satisfactory answer, "Well, that's just the way most songs are written" Was it just the way of the past? Are you talking about commerce? Do you think it's shyness? I had trouble sleeping that night. There was a need for a better response.

Philosophers and writers have wrestled with the nature of repetition and its appeal to the mind. Past lives, time spirals, eternal returns, and the possibility that repetition isn't even possible are some of the topics they've talked about. I didn't find any useful ideas for the class. I wondered if a universal answer could be found in the universe.

I wrote Music, Lyrics, and Life: A Field Guide for the Advancing Songwriter the same way I write songs, starting with a question, followed it, and hanging on. Many of the experts I interviewed weren't songwriters, but still grappled with similar questions in their own fields, and in their own ways, and this was definitely the case with Janna. Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space tells the story of the team that built the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. Right now, you can hear ripples for yourself.

It was more than an explanation of musical repetition. It was a new way of thinking.

People with an affinity for repetition include writers and physicists. Repetition is often used as a tool in music, but for astronomy it seems to imply forces that are deliberately at work.

It's absolutely true. SETI looks for very regular mathematical signals because they assume that nature won't be able to do anything like that. If you find a regular signal, you want it to be sent by someone who controls the environment.

Sometimes we are incorrect about that. Do you know anything about them? There are big stars that collapse and die, and they don't make black holes because they're not big enough. The star has a big magnetic field and it becomes a lighthouse. As it spins, it has a beam of light, and as it sweeps past you, it was detected by radio astronomy. The clock is on. I don't know if it was a second timescale. It was so regular thatastronomers jokingly called them "little green men." This is a natural source over time. It's a perfect clock. It won't slow down. It will not budge. Nature makes things that are perfect.

What is it that makes us so interested in humans?

I believe that math makes us. The structure of our minds is affected by the nature of evolution. They have to be mathematicians. Our parents were the laws of physics and we had a genetic sense of who they were. We think it is there. The structure of our minds is being discovered by us. It's in my mind that I can sit there with a piece of paper and discover a lot of things.

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Mike Errico dives into the heart of the questions asked by the writers.

Communication within the animal kingdom is similar to bird calls. Repetition corrects for mistakes. If you didn't get it the first time, you'll get it the second time.

We want to be unique in language, but we also want to be repetitive. I want you to hear those words over and over and over again, like with children. You need repetition to understand what the words mean, but then you want to be able to say something unique by assembling those words.

A basic theory of songwriting is thatchoruses teach themselves to the audience.

It's right. LIGO can't detect something that only happens once. To pull it out, it has to be repeated. We hope that LIGO will hear something for a long time so that it will be able to hear repeats. That is exactly what it wants to find. The repetition will let it identify something. If someone yells in the street, you're like, "Did I just hear that?" "Oh!" if it's over and over again. Something isn't right!

I'm talking about that.

Science is about the fact that someone else can do it and get the same answer. A person from Oxford said, "Look, this is a real experiment: Imagine a circle, divide it by the diameter." You have come up with a formula for pi. That is not a normal thing. Anybody can do the same experiment in their mind and get the same answer.

I think that is as tangible as any other thing. It could be that I didn't physically take out a tape measure. It is as real to me as if I had, and in some way it is more real because my tape measure is not perfect, but in my mind, it is. That isn't real. That is actually true.

Repetition from the same source or the same computation makes a difference.

A lot of people like me struggle with reality because it is less real. Is that chair blue? I believe it is persimmon colored. I believe it's lavender. There isn't as much reality in reality than there is in our minds. It is comforting to know that if you were from Bangladesh 200 years ago, you did the same experiment. It makes sense that we have repetition because it is an evolutionary trait.

It connects us to each other and to whoever is out there.

There were no flaws, no guru, and no error in the thoughts. There is no experimentation in the history of humanity. An approximation to pi will be conjured, but never pi itself. My mind and yours are the only places pi is found. If we both do it right, we will get the same digits, no matter where we are. That isn't real.

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