Mendeleyev and the Music of the Spheres
2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Mendeleyev's Periodic Table - a landmark in the history of science.
The MPT established the link between chemistry and physics; and in so doing, it laid the foundations of the 20th Century’s main scientific agenda – the unification of all the material sciences.
We believe that the main scientific agenda for the 21st Century is to bring science closer to the lives and imaginations of ordinary people, who do not think of science as being ‘for them’.
We therefore propose to mark this anniversary with a programme of events, which aims to connect the creativity of artists to the inspiration of knowledge.
What's the plan?
The mission of the Cornwall Science Community is public engagement with science, and especially to reach out to engage communities that would not normally see themselves as involved in science; and here in Cornwall we see an opportunity to catch the imagination of many who would see science – and perhaps especially chemistry – as simply not of interest, not for them.
Hence we are hosting this idea as a competition, wanting to upturn the stereotypically dry image of the sciences and instead aiming for showbiz flair and dynamism. The competition (with prizes), will be open to all who live and work in Cornwall; and the challenge is to invent a way to express the elements of the Periodic Table, not in 2D as figures on a page, as Mendeleyev himself did, but as sounds.
This then becomes, in effect, a new form of musical notation, from which new music can be created, and then played. We envisage that the instrument (or software programme) that wins the award will be able to be used to teach children in schools, in particular, of the elegance of Mendeleyev’s achievement, and also to engage them actively in using it to make music that speaks to their own lives and landscapes.
This anniversary programme culminates in a world premiere performance of an entirely new musical composition - and beyond that, a whole new genre.
For more explanation, read on.....
What's the outcome?
We are familiar with seeing the Periodic Table expressed as a pattern conveyed in 2 dimensions (with the individual elements drawn either as diagrams or formulae, like code). But this is simply a convention – chemical elements are not truly 2D - and it is one that anchors the beauty of the concept in a scientific representation of the world that not everyone can readily relate to.
Yet such diagrams and codes are essentially patterns; and music, too, is a matter of repeated and combined patterns. In music, we also give the notes we play letters for names; and we lay them out in 2D on a pattern of lines, a stave - which is also just a convention. But music has a way to engage people with imagination, in a way that more staid and studious presentations cannot do.
This ‘music of the spheres’ might be expressed here as actual sounds, as notation for a musical score, or in the form of a MIDI interface that allows the ‘music’ to be played through any electronic device with a sound card*. It should then be possible to put together multiple elements as molecules, crystals, or far longer chains (for organic chemistry) and then to compose musical soundscapes (water + silicon = beach; water + granite = cliff; wood or grass are complex molecules, full of harmonies; waves are then expressible as volume changes, and structures as rhythm, in the length and repetition of notes, and in harmonies etc, etc)
The underlying intention, in making this a competition, is to engage the imagination and create some excitement,
For this reason, too, although we have the basic costs covered, we intend to crowdfund for contributions, which allows a community of micro-funders to feel some sense of ownership (literally) and participation. Hence too the extended time frame. We wish to give plenty of time for publicity and for development of the instrument and the chosen piece of music, bearing in mind both school and university term and holiday times
As with any competition there can be no guarantee, at this early stage, of the quality of the entries that we will receive. But Cornwall – which has a very strong musical tradition, a sense of place and belonging (the Cornish are recognised as a minority by the EU) – now in addition benefits from a lively contemporary music presence via an offshoot of the University of Exeter, and we also have the Falmouth University digital technologies centre.
Although we can therefore be fairly confident of good uptake here in Cornwall, the underlying idea is replicable; and there could be similar competitions at other times and in other places.
The judging panel will consist of members of the BSA branch; local members of the Royal Society of Chemistry; and representatives of the Academy of Music and the Arts (a part of Falmouth University, which is co-located with Exeter University on its Penryn campus, Cornwall); and we intend to invite those who have been involved in previous UNESCO projects celebrating Cornwall’s mining heritage, whether as makers, or as judges.