Science in Society Archive

Art-Science Essay

A Scientist’s Earth Music

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

ISIS contribution to Earth Music Bristol, 18-26 November 2011, Bristol, UK

Why would a scientist be interested in an Earth Music Festival, or indeed in anything to do with the arts and humanities?

Just as William Blake’s depiction of Newton preoccupied with sterile ratiocination [1] is emblematic of the artist’s antipathy to science, Charles Darwin’s confession that he could not “endure to read a line of poetry” and almost lost his appetite for pictures or music [2] encapsulates the scientist’s distaste for the arts.

Closer to our time, Lewis Wolpert, a Fellow of the Royal Society, blamed the romantic poets for making science unpopular with the public; because science is too difficult for poets to comprehend [3]. He said science excludes romantic intuition, magic, the paranormal, and any form of holistic thinking. I most heartily disagree.

At least Darwin went on to say [2]: “If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the part of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept alive through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness.”

As a scientist inspired first and foremost by the beauty of nature, I will go as far as to insist that we need romantic intuition in order to understand nature and nature’s unity, which is the wellspring of creativity in both science and art.

Edward Cowie tells me that at least 70 percent of all the musical pieces composed in Europe since 1500 have been explicitly inspired by nature, despite the fact that any such “response to nature” is denigrated in the mainstream [4]. Henri Poincare, the Last Universalist excelling in all fields of mathematics, once wrote [5]: “The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing and life would not be worth living.”

It is clear that we are not talking about a slavish imitation of nature in science or art. To the extent that human beings are part of nature, science and art are nature’s inventions; and every bit as much as the bird song or whale song.

Science, as much as art, creates the ‘significant form’ at the heart of all aesthetic experience (see [6] In Search of the Sublime, SiS 39). A scientific theory is a significant form that unites seemingly unrelated, disparate phenomena. The beauty of an authentic scientific theory depends on its richness of content that somehow ‘rings true’; that one feels to be consonant with our most intimate experience of nature. The same can be said of artistic form: it signifies our deepest connection with nature. Without this connection, there can be no significance in the content, and hence, no significant form.

Let’s celebrate by giving voice and significant forms to Earth, home to the teeming 8.7 million species of wild life, most of which may become extinct before their songs are catalogued [7]. But above all, let’s give voice to Earth as a whole. 

Earth was born some 4.578 billion years ago, differentiating into a layered body early in its developmental history [8]. Molten iron descended to the centre to form a solid inner core of radius ~1 220 km, and a liquid outer core extending to a radius ~3 400 km. The outer core flows in spiral convection patterns as it cools, giving Earth a magnetic field unique in the solar system [9], which balloons out to a magnetosphere like angel’s wings, to protect Earth from the fierce onslaught of solar winds [10]. Surrounding the outer core is the Earth’s viscous mantle ~2 890 km thick, composed of silicate rocks rich in iron and magnesium relative to the overlying crust [11]. Convectional flow of the still hot mantle powers the clash of tectonic plates that rearranges continents, opens new seas,  sinking rift valleys and sending seismic waves across the globe, spewing rocks, larva, ashes and gases through erupting volcanoes as Earth matures [12].

Space scientist and inventor Jim Lovelock first proposed in the 1970s that the entire earth is a self-organizing, self-regulating entity, rather like an organism. As suggested by his neighbour novelist William Golding, he named the earth Gaia after the Greek earth goddess [13]; the idea caught fire. It inspired many earth scientists to look for the dynamic processes that organize and regulate the air and water currents of Earth to make a congenial home for all her inhabitants.

Records from ice and deep sea cores show detailed globally correlated changes going back at least 800 000 years, leaving us in no doubt that the earth behaves from moment to moment as one coherent whole, like an organism (see Back to the Future for Gaia and other articles in Life of Gaia series [14], SiS 20).

Not only can we read Gaia’s life-history from her deep memory stores, we can also tune in to her life-force pulsing as she is living today.

Gaia spinning in her perpetual dance around the sun, her mighty breath tumbling from hot belly to the frozen poles, swirling across the continents, bringing welcome rain to forests, grasslands and crops, or torrential downpours, floods and hurricanes.

Vast slow watery vortices connect her oceans from the furthest northern reaches to the southernmost haunts, from the shimmering sea surfaces to the dark deep beds, distributing warmth and nutrients, sustaining life with life.

It is most fitting that scientists and artists should join in creating Earth music to help keep Earth and Earth magic alive.

Register now for ISIS sponsored event:

Article first published 10/10/11


  1. William Blake’s Newton (1795), colour print with pen & ink and water colour.
  2. Charles Darwin: His Life Told in an Autobiographical Chapter &  in a Selected Series of his Published Letters, Edited by Francis Darwin. London: William Clowes and Sons, Ltd.1892, p. 51.
  3. Lewis Wolpert first made these claims in a public lecture in Warwick University, 1989, and has repeated them many times since.
  4. Edward Cowie, personal communication, 4 October 2011, Les Chenes, Bergerec, France.
  5. Cited by Subramanyan Chandrasekhar Truth and Beauty, Aesthetics and Motivation in Science, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1987.
  6. Mae-Wan Ho. In search of the sublime, significant form in science in art. Science in Society 2008, 39, 4-11.
  7. Camilo Mora et al. How many species are there on earth and in the ocean? PloS Biology 2011, 9, e1001127.
  8. History of the Earth, Wikipedia, 2 October 2011,
  9. Bruce A. Buffett. Earth’s core and the geodynamo. Science 2000, 288, 2007-2012.
  10. John G. Lyon. The solar wind-magnetosphere-ionosphere system. Science 2000, 288, 1987-1991.
  11. Structure of the Earth, Wikipedia, 6 October 2011,
  12. Paul J. Tackley. Mantle convection and plate tectonic: toward an integrated physical and chemical theory. Science 2000, 288, 2002-2007.
  13. Jim Lovelock. The Ages of Gaia, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989.
  14. Peter Bunyard, Mae-Wan Ho and Sam Burcher. Life of Gaia series, Science in Society 2003, 20, 20-33.

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There are 3 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

walter bortz Comment left 10th October 2011 21:09:36
Energy (MWH} is the oboe's A.Once it is sounded and received it is transduced to a glorious ensemble.

Anupam Paul Comment left 11th October 2011 00:12:35
Our present society is very fragmented and there is little cohesion among the members of a particular group/clan/society. The concept of community living has gone forever in our so called developed society. In the so called primitive society, the members do not differentiate among songs, dance, cultivation,rowing a boat, drawing a picture or other social activities. To them these are the part of life. But our modern society have differentiated these social activities as we no longer maintain the community life. There are several scientist who used to play musical instrument, write popular articles for a pastime.There are several such examples in India. Satyen Bose(Boson particle, Bose Einstein theory)used to play a string instrument called ESRAJ, Jagadish Bose(inventor of radio) was a good writer.Einstein used to play violin.It a matter of perception of individual scientist. After all scientists are a part of our society.She cannot ignore the society and community.

Rory Short Comment left 11th October 2011 01:01:02
Earth our mother, our home, our nest but right now, as a collective, we humans are behaving like manic nestlings tearing our nest to pieces in search of what, who knows? But what we can be sure of we will most certainly destroy our nest and thus our selves.