Two worlds collide

Will science and religion ever work out how to coexist peacefully?

There’s not much on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) calendar this year. Most of it is green. According to the colour key, that indicates a “technical stop”: in February, the LHC will shut down for an 18-month upgrade. Before that, there’s a bit of yellow (“protonion set-up”) and a gold block that starts the week after – the “proton-ion run”. The few other events marked come from another world: Good Friday, Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Whitsun and Christmas.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also has a to-do list and this one can’t ignore religion, either. One of the WHO’s aims is to make Africa polio-free (Nigeria is the only state on the continent where the disease still lurks). Another is to continue its immunisation programmes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At least one of those goals is up the creek. In Pakistan, the immunisation programme has been suspended – just before Christmas, nine health workers carrying out the vaccinations were shot dead.

The shootings are believed to be the work of those who believe that the vaccination programme is a western plot to sterilise Muslim children. It sounds ludicrous but it’s a popular conspiracy theory; the claim has left Nigerian children as the only Africans still fully exposed to the debilitating virus.

There is growing concern in the Muslim world that western science is encroaching on religious territory and this anxiety has some basis in reality. While health workers in Pakistan debate whether to risk their lives, the scientists at Cern will use proton-ion collisions to probe the Creation story. The result of these collisions will be a quark-gluon plasma.

Smash apart the protons at the centre of atoms and you will find that they’re composed of particles called quarks, held together by other particles called gluons. Seeing this stuff requires a lot of energy: the quark-gluon plasma exists only at temperatures of a few trillion degrees. Researchers first created one on earth about a decade ago and it demonstrated some extraordinary properties that are well worth revisiting. For instance, the primordial soup of particles has so much energy and such strong interactions that it pulls new particles out of the empty space in which it resides. In effect, it creates something from nothing.

The only previous time a quark-gluon plasma appeared in the universe was a microsecond after the Big Bang, when the universe was the size of a small town. As things cooled down, the quarks, the gluons and the electrons congealed into hydrogen atoms. Eventually, everything else formed: stars, galaxies, bigger atoms, planets and people.

In the 200,000 years since they first appeared on earth, those people have demonstrated persistent curiosity, with interesting consequences. Questions about their origin led them to form religions. That led to rituals and festivities, creating well-bonded communities that valued co-operation, which gave rise to what we call civilisation, which in turn birthed science – another way to satisfy that human curiosity.

Science provided a way for people to agree on answers to what the world and the universe are made of, how it all works and where it all might have come from. The co-operative side of human nature, meanwhile, has caused nations to work together on things such as re-creating the moment of Creation (religious festivals permitting) and establishing international vaccination programmes to alleviate suffering. All we have to do now is work out how the two might coexist without people getting shot.

A graphic showing traces of collision of particles at the Compact Muon Solenoid. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

Alan Schulz
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An Amazonian tribe is challenging scientific assumptions about our musical preferences

The Tsimane’ – a population of people in a rural village in Bolivia – are overturning scientists' understanding of why humans prefer consonant sounds over dissonant ones.

It was 29 May 1913. Hoards of Parisians packed out the newly-opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Messrs Proust, Picasso and Debussy were in attendance. Billed for the evening was the premiere of Le Sacre du PrintempsThe Rite of Spring, a ballet and orchestral work debuted by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

The attention and conjecture focused on the theatre that day meant expectations were high. However, within moments of the piece beginning, all preconceived notions held by the audience were shattered, as what was unfolding in front of them was a musical tragedy unlike anything they had ever witnessed.

A bassoon hummed into the ether before ballet dancers stomped on stage; the music, unpredictable with its experimental edge, drove forth the onstage narrative of a young girl whose selection during a pagan ritual saw her sacrificially dance towards death. Stravinsky’s composition and the ensemble of the night caused the room to descend from laughter and disruption to chaos and uproar.

The employment of dissonance – sharp, unstable chords – largely contributed to the audience’s disturbed reaction. Dissonant chords create a tension, one which seeks to be resolved by transitioning to a consonant chord – for example an octave or perfect fifth. These musical intervals sound far calmer than the chords which riveted the audience of The Rite of Spring.

Dissonant and consonant intervals find themselves as binary opposites; the frequencies at which notes played together vibrate determine whether an interval is consonant or dissonant. Consonant intervals have simple mathematical relationships between them, but greater digression from that simplicity makes an interval increasingly dissonant.

It’s long been believed  both experimentally and anecdotally – that the preference among Westerners for consonant chords highlights a universal, perhaps biologically-rooted, leaning among all humans towards consonant sounds. If you were present at the introduction of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on that night of furore in Paris, you’d find it hard to disagree.

There is, however, a growing movement against this consensus. Ethnomusicologists and composers alike argue that favouring consonance may just be a phenomenon that has evolved from Western musical culture. And following the visit of a group of researchers to a remote Amazonian society, these claims could well be grounded in scientific evidence.

Led by Josh McDermott, an MIT researcher who studies how people hear, the group travelled to a village in the Amazon rainforest called Santa Maria. It’s populated by the Tsimane’ – a group of native Amazonians whose rural abode is inaccessible by road and foot, and can be reached only by canoe. There are no televisions in Santa Maria and its inhabitants have little access to radio, meaning exposure to Western cultural influences is minimal.

The researchers were curious to see how the Tsimane’ would respond to music, in order to determine whether they too had a preference for consonant sounds over dissonant ones. To everyone’s surprise, the Tsimane’ showed no preference for consonance; the two different sounds, to the Tsimane’ at least, were equally pleasant.

Detailing their research in a paper published by Nature, the group explains how the Tsimane’ people’s indifference to dissonance is a product of their distance from Western culture and music, removing any purported notion that humans are hard-wired to praise perfect fifths and fourths.

McDermott tells me that the Western preference for consonance may just be based on familiarity. “The music we hear typically has more consonant chords than dissonant chords, and we may like what we are most exposed to,” he says. “Another possibility is that we are conditioned by all the instances in which we hear consonant and dissonant chords when something good or bad is happening, for example in films and on TV. Music is so ubiquitous in modern entertainment that I think this could be a huge effect. But it could also be mere exposure.”

To fully gauge the Tsimane’ responses to the music, 64 participants, listening via headphones, were asked to rate the pleasantness of chords composed of synthetic tones, and chords composed of recorded notes sung by a vocalist. At a later date, another 50 took part in the experiment. They had their responses compared to Bolivian residents in a town called San Borja, the capital city La Paz, and residents in the United States – locations selected based on their varying exposures to Western music.

What made the Tsimane’ particularly interesting to McDermott and his group was the absence of harmony, polyphony and group performances in their music. It was something the researchers initially thought may prevent an aesthetic response from forming, but the worry was quickly diminished given the Tsimane’ participants’ measure of pleasantness on the four-point scale they were provided.

Unsurprisingly, the US residents showed a strong preference for consonance – an expected preference given the overrunning of Western music with consonant chords. Meanwhile, the San Borja and La Paz residents demonstrated inclinations towards consonant sounds similar to the US residents. The implication of these results – that consonance preferences are absent in cultures “sufficiently isolated” from Western music – are huge. We most probably aren’t as polarised by consonance and dissonance as we assume; cultural prevalence is far more likely to have shaped the consonant-dominant sounds of Western music.

McDermott raised the question about why Western music may feature certain intervals over others to begin with:

“One possibility is that biology and physics conspire to make conventionally consonant and dissonant chords easy to distinguish, and so that distinction becomes a natural one on which to set up an aesthetic contrast even if the preference is not obligatory. We have a little evidence for this in that the Tsimane' could discriminate harmonic from inharmonic frequencies, which we believe form the basis of the Western consonance/dissonance distinction, even though they did not prefer harmonic to inharmonic frequencies.”

There has been some criticism of this. Speaking to The Atlantic, Daniel Bowling from the University of Vienna said:

“The claim that the human perception of tonal beauty is free from biological constraint on the basis of a lack of full-blown Western consonance preferences in one Amazonian tribe is misleading.”

Though the results from the Amazonian tribe demonstrate a complete refutation of previous assumptions, people's musical preferences from other cultures and places will need to be analysed to cement the idea.

With research beginning to expand beyond WEIRD people – those from a Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic background – the tastes in music of people the world over may continue to surprise, just as the Tsimane’ did.

The Rite of Spring, which was met with ridiculing reviews has now been canonised and is considered to be one of the most important pieces of music of the twentieth century. A Tsimane’ crowd on that tender night a century ago in Paris may have responded with instant praise and elation. With further research, the imagined Bolivian adoration of a Russian composer’s piece in the French city of love may prove music to be the universal language after all.