Beethoven’s ninth: My first: A scientific analogy

The Royal Albert Hall

The Royal Albert Hall

Some years ago we made a family list of ‘things to do before the children grow up’.  This evening we headed off to the Royal Albert Hall to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. And when we got home we ticked  ‘Attend a classical music concert’ off our list.

I was familiar with the work because my elder brother had a record of it and I had listened to it several times as a teenager. But watching it being performed was enormously more pleasurable in a way I find I hard to describe.

One feature of ‘attending a classical music concert’ is that for a brief while, you can’t do anything else. It thus creates a meditative arena within which one’s thoughts and anxieties flow and ebb with the music. And in this meditative state I reflected on the fact that what I heard was an orchestra, and not the sound of individual instruments.

Each of those musicians would probably have studied their instrument for at least 10 years – and probably twice that. Each one by themselves would probably be the best player of that instrument I had ever encountered! And yet the result of their virtuosity was not that we could hear them individually. Instead, we got to hear their collective creation – the sound of an orchestra.

And as I wondered how that must feel, I reflected that the situation was in some respects like a large scientific project. Highly-trained scientists add their skills and expertise together but while the overall work benefits from the attention to detail of each contributor, the individual components should not distract from the overall result.

For example, thousands of scientists are involved in work at CERN (at least 3000!) and every year hundreds of PhD students complete theses studying the behaviour of components of the experiments conducted there. But in the big performances – the particle discoveries for example – their work contributes only as a harmonious overtone to the overall result. And the ‘conductor’ and the principal ‘violin’ get to bathe in the fame and glory.

And I reflected that I particularly appreciated the self-effacement involved in both these activities – creating music and creating science. The musicians and scientists will generally not find great fame or wealth. But they do get to earn a living doing something they love. And then occasionally, they get to take part in something really big and grand and inspiring.

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