Isaac Newton Resonates From Rainbows to Rap Battles

Isaac Newton

In Opticks, Sir Isaac Newton’s 1704 treatise on light and color, the physicist slips in a radical theory on music: He proposes that, since the solfège contains seven intervals (do re mi fa so la ti) and the rainbow contains seven colors, music and color must vibrate in accordance with each other.

Thus, do-re-mi vibrates cheerily as red-orange-yellow, and “Happy birthday, Isaac Newton”—a lyrical refrain you may hear emanating from physics labs today in celebration of Newton’s 373rd birthday—occupies a red-indigo-orange color scheme. Newton was wrong, of course. But you can’t blame him for trying. In those days, it was a common ambition among scientists to connect music with the cosmos.

Johannes Kepler, a major influence on Newton, proposed that the solfège corresponds not with colors but with the speed of the planets; Earth, for instance, drones at intervals of fa and mi. Galileo Galilei, another of Newton’s forebears, embodied the music-science harmony in another way. His father, Vincenzo, was a famous lutenist and music theorist whose biggest discoveries focused on the physics of vibrating strings. These findings would have significant reverberations, so to speak, in quantum string theory 400 years later.

Because of its vibrational nature, string theory is commonly explained in terms of music. Michio Kaku describes nature’s subatomic particles as “nothing but musical notes on a tiny vibrating string…. Physics is nothing but the laws of harmony that you can write on vibrating strings…. Chemistry is nothing but the melodies you can play on interacting vibrating strings…. The universe is a symphony of vibrating strings.”

In 2009, electronic musician John D. Boswell translated this “symphony” into listenable audio with Symphony of Science, a music project that sought to “spread scientific knowledge and philosophy through musical remixes.” Composed of snippets of scientific television programs, Boswell’s musical production samples the voices of today’s most recognizable scientists, including Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking and Bill Nye.

The search for a harmony between music and the cosmos continues. But even among today’s music-science fusions, Newton still holds his own. In his Epic Rap Battle of History against Nye, he takes down his foe with ease: “Of all the scientific minds in history, / They put a beaker in a bow tie up against me?”

Nye spits back some dope rhymes (“You wrote the book on gravity, / But you couldn’t attract no body!”), but it’s ultimately Tyson, bursting in with a surprise hook late in the battle, who takes the win: “I put the swag back in science / While Isaac Newton was lying / And sticking daggers in Leibniz / And hiding up inside his attic / On some Harry Potter business. / The universe is infinite, / But this battle is finished.”

Feature Photo: © Iberfoto/Everett Collection