Pythagoras' Dying Words

This site is named after the drawing on the front cover of the Anthology of American Folk Music, depicting the hand of the Creator tuning the "celestial monochord." Reading up on the origins of the idea of the celestial monochord, I once ran across this passage:

Pythagoras is said to have taught that the universe is put together by means of harmonic laws and so produces, through the motion of the seven planets, rhythm and melody. The very enthusiastic Neo-Pythagorean Iamblichus went so far as to claim that Pythagoras could actually hear the cosmic music inaudible to other mortals. And since all discoveries about the Pythagorean cosmos were dependent on the numerical ratios sounded by a stretched string, or monochord, it was reported by the Neo-Platonic musical theorist Aristides Quintilianus that Pythagoras' dying injunction to his students was “work the monochord.”
Work the monochord. I think of this often when this blog feels like way too much work, and I want to quit.

Today, Expecting Rain featured my long posts about the New Lost City Ramblers and Bob Dylan, and it has really done wonders for my site statistics, to say nothing of my resolve to forge ahead! I thank them. Surely, they must be very familiar with the thankless, relentless job of blogging, and I suspect that the long hours of lonesome computer work must be why they chose their name, based on this Dylan lyric:

Now the moon is almost hidden
The stars are beginning to hide
The fortunetelling lady
Has even taken all her things inside
All except for Cain and Abel
And the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love
Or else expecting rain

Editor's Note: The quote about Pythagoras has been very slightly edited for pithiness. You can find the whole thing at the Dictionary of the History of Ideas. "Work the monochord" ... well, you know those ancient Greeks ...

Corn Stalks and the Milky Way

My momma done told me ... when I was a boy ... that when she was growing up on a Wisconsin farm, the corn would grow so fast in late summer you could hear it grow — it was noisy. Being a suburban kid, and a born skeptic, I didn't believe her at first. An April Fool's joke?

She explained that at the height of the growing season, little fibrous strands on any given stalk of corn will snap on occasion, maybe once a week or so. But when you have a whole field of many thousands of stalks of corn, the field crackles like a campfire.

So, in that Wisconsin farmhouse, late at night in the dog days of summer during the Depression, with the windows of her bedroom wide open, she used to fall asleep listening to the corn grow ... crackling, crackling, all night long.

This was a lesson in statistics: very rare events happen all the time. I thought of it years later, reading how radio astronomers map our galaxy.

The vast, star-forming clouds in our Milky Way Galaxy's spiral arms are mostly made of hydrogen atoms — simply, one electron circling one proton. They both spin on their axes like tops, usually in parallel directions. But very rarely, the electron will flip and spin in the opposite (or anti-parallel) direction from its proton. When this happens, the atom emits a light wave at a wavelength of 21 centimeters — a radio frequency.

It only happens to a given hydrogen atom every 10 million years or so, but because our galaxy contains trillions of hydrogen atoms, it happens everywhere, all the time. So radio astonomers can map the galaxy, because the Milky Way softly hums with radio noise, all night, all day, for billions of years.

Spider John: Amateur Astronomer


You may know the great Minnesota bluesman Spider John Koerner as a character in Bob Dylan's recent book. He's portrayed there as, essentially, "the other guy" around Dylan's university neighborhood who, in 1960, played the accousic guitar and tried to sound 45 years older than he really was. Well, now John really is 45 years older than he really was, and you can still find him playing in bars near the same old Dinkytown neighborhood, sounding better than ever.

The City Pages now confirms the obvious — Koerner is an amateur astronomer. This great bearer of the folk-blues tradition is also a "StarGeezer." Since tonight marks the premier of a new documentary about him, "Been Here, Done That," it's a good day to award Spider John the coveted Monochordum Mundi, given to those who best represent the fusion of science and music we're looking for here at The Celestial Monochord.

Go to Spider John's website and try clicking on the pictures of him there.