A little bit of gamma-ray music

Art and science meld during musical performance for the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Inside the vast concert hall of the Kennedy Center on November 2, the usual suspects were present for the premiere of a symphony: an expectant audience and a full orchestra. But a large video screen overhead and the presence on stage of an actor wearing a white robe suggested this was not the usual musical evening.

The symphony, dubbed Cosmic Reflection, melded music, computer animations and a dramatic narrative to portray the greatest story ever told — the history of the universe, from the Big Bang to us — in just under 40 minutes.

Composer Nolan Gasser had already written a musical celebration of the launch last year of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, performed at the launch party and accompanied by visuals showing the construction of the telescope and what it might see.

Now, Fermi scientist Peter Michelson of SLAC and Stanford University, who had thought of the idea of commissioning the first musical piece, wanted to musically celebrate the gamma-ray findings made by Fermi along with the discoveries made by a slew of other telescopes, some looking back to the very beginning of the universe. Michelson is a grand-nephew of physicist Albert Michelson, the first American to win a Nobel Prize in physics. He received the prize in 1907 for his famous 1887 experiment with Edward Morley that showed that there is no such thing as an “aether” and that the speed of light is constant regardless of reference frame.

When Peter Michelson attended a centennial celebration of the Michelson-Morley experiment in 1987 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, he was struck by a musical portrait, The Light, composed for that occasion by Philip Glass. The power of that piece, Michelson says, inspired him two decades later to think in musical terms about the struggles and feats of scientists trying to understand the universe.

As with the launch celebration, Gasser was again tapped for the task and began familiarizing himself with basic cosmological concepts. In his score, Gasser musically depicts the Big Bang, the annihilation of matter and anti-matter, the light streaming freely into space from the cosmic microwave background and the birth of the first stars. Divided into three movements that take the listener from the Big Bang to the creation of the first stars and galaxies to the universe as it is today, the symphony is synchronized with a poetic narrative written by cosmologist and author Lawrence Krauss and by Pierre Schwob, who designed the Classical Archives website and is a devotee of physics and cosmology.

As the Boston University Symphony Orchestra played, animations showing everything from the Big Bang to supernova explosions, projected on the screen above the orchestra, seemed to float above the concert hall and drive the rhythm of the evening. Rich Melnick of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who developed those animations, was on hand to make sure they were in sync with the music and the script. Narrating that script in a sonorous voice — and looking God-like in the white robe —was actor and playwright Carey Harrison , the son of actors Lilli Palmer and Rex Harrison.

In this listener’s opinion, it was a truly heavenly experience.

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