Sunday, 10 July 2011


Nobody does it like Gilberto Gil. Nobody. A one man powerhouse of ideas, music and insight, Gilberto was one of the front men of the late 1960s revolutionary Tropicalia movement which brought foreign influences and the voicing of social conscience directly into Brazillian music.

With the poet Torquato Mento, Gil wrote what became the hymn of the Torpical movement - Geleir Geral:
A poet unfurls the flag

And the tropical morn begins to beat 

Resplendent, cascading, gracious

A joyous sunflower heat 

In the general jam of Brazil

That the Jornal do Brasil will greet

With Tropicalia, Gil became a global superstar and then shocked everyone by becoming Brazil's Minister of Culture in 2003, exciting another cultural revolution for the 21st century, this time in cultural policy. Pontos de Cultura focuses on the dispossessed and disenfranchised, creating a network of belonging and social change through the arts, supported by the Brazilian Government. But what has this got to do with physics? At first glance not alot.

Quanta, Gil's 32nd album released in 1997, shows as ever Gilberto Gil's focus on living and creativity. It is a heady blend of sambas, country, rock, forros, funk, ballads and boss nova rhythms and won the Grammy for World Music. But that's what one expects from Gil. What makes it so unusual is that it is an albulm all about art and science - as one of its samba tracks, 'Cinenci e Arte, makes explicit.

The lyrics of the title track say it all: "I know that art is the sister of science, both daughters of a fleeting God who makes and in the same moment unmakes. This vague God behind the world, from behind the behind." The albulm's quest for meaning through its elaborate series of short song cycles is thus set.

Another song, 'Pela Internet' (For the Internet) is a buoyant starry eyed ode to the information super highway, describing the evolution of communications.
However, Gil's image in this song isn't the internet as a superhighway, but instead as an "infosea," where the port of call receives not slave ships and merchandise, but diskettes and far flung missives. "I want to enter the net," sings Gil, "to contact the homes in Nepal, the bars in Gabon, that the carioca chief of police warns on his mobile."

It is this infinite web of possibilities and social connection which the internet offers, which was to become nearly 20 years after he wrote this song, the heart of Gilberto Gil's radical Pontos de Cultura policy.

The song is doubly ironic too. In form and style, Gilberto Gil draws comparison with what is considered to be the first samba ever recorded in Brazillian music, 'Pelo Telefone'. The last verses in Gil's song are an update of the original lyrics - bringing it up to date for the internet world, and the finale is a parody o Rolling Stones 'I Cant Get No Satisfaction' with playful vocal adlibs echoing Mick Jagger's endless quest for satisfaction with the line, sneered in English during the fade, "Got no connection!"

There are many shout outs throughout the albulm - embracing language from quantum mechanics, crab vendors and the goddess Shiva. But the ghost in this musical machine is undoubtedly physics. The albulm is in all but name dedicated to Brazil's most distinguished and honoured physicist, Cesar Lattes. Lattes was one of the discoverers of the pion - a subatomic partcile made of a quark and an antiquark and studied cosmic rays for all of his life. He came close to winning the Nobel prize twice, but never did.

The albulm contains an open letter from Lattes to Gil, in which he analyses the lyrics and the songs, observing

I ask only that you let me tell you of the happiness that your words about physics give me, but in some cases there is poetic license:

The "infinitesimal" is a mathematical fiction. Quantum is the minimum action (energy x time).

This theme of minimalism is reflected in the albulm on many levels. None of the twenty songs runs over four-and-a-half minutes, but together they amount to what has been called 'a sprawling, hungry embrace of everything from Gil's African roots, to God and the cosmos, to personal reflections, to the wowing possibilities of the Internet.'

Lattes ends his letter movingly with these observations directly to the great musician:

"Science and Art": moved and appreciate the attention.
Science inseminates subliminally.
Science is a younger sister (perhaps illegitimate)
Art: Camões asked for help from the ingenuity and art - not science.
Solomon says that "science without conscience is but the ruin of the soul" - the art, no. I will stop here, because Solomon also says: "Seek not to be too tight nor too wise: you want to ruin it?"

To conclude I quote a great architect, "When science is silent, art speaks" (Artigas).

With a hug,
Cesar Lattes

In the end, Quanta quanta is all about transformations - not only of the science and arts kind, but also of the society. The particle turned samba. A universe of possibilities in a quantum world. Quanta quanta

Wednesday, 6 July 2011


He says
It's all about
Mind over matter
Those moments on the trapeze
When a hand reaches out
Hand over heart
Over hand
Hand over
You have to trust
That you will not fail

For 16 precious minutes in May, anti-matter was trapped at CERN for thelongest time on the planet. Held fast. Trap tight. In a vacuum. Like no place on earth, on earth. For a length of time not seen since the birth of the universe. It is arguably one of the most significant cultural moments on the planet - even aside from discovering the Higgs Boson.

The hand
that minds
the heart
that hands
the mind
the heart's

And why? Because even though anti-matter does not exist today on earth, except when it is manmade like at CERN, without anti-matter we would not exist. There would be no beginnings - and indeed fewer endings. So capturing the disappeared is a moment of affirming exitsence. But somehow - and this is one of the great unsolved mysteries of science - at the beginning of the universe, matter and anti matter co-existed in equal amounts. And yet when the Big Bang threw them headlong into each other's arms, matter won over anti-matter - hence the world we live in, naturally is made of matter. The LhCB experiment at CERN is determined to find out why this is.

She says
It's all about
Matter over mind
Those moments on the trapeze
when a hand reaches out
Heart over
Hand over

Essentially anti-matter is matter's time twin. A lone twin. A non twin-twin even. Because anti matter is essentially the same as matter except for one important fact - the electric charge on matter and anti-matter for some reason differs. This distinction leads to annihilation - because if anti matter comes in contact with matter, it will destroy itself.

Michael Doser, one of the physicists working on the Alpha experiment which achieved the historic trapping of anti-matter, believes that the arts have a role in helping us explain and understand anti-matter - taking us beyond the equations and formulas and experiments of particle physicists like himself:

"Much of science is mathematical. It is hard to go from maths which you know is correct to an intuitive understanding. For this, you have to go to an analogy which is flawed and never perfect. However until you can bring an equation into a visual analogue it is very hard to think about it fully. Once you find an analogue, then you can develop a much better understanding, and from this develop predictions which go beyond your understanding defined by the equations themselves. That is what art does for science"

You have to trust
that you will not fail

The mind
that hands
the heart
that minds
the heart's

That's all that matters
No matter

But in essence, the arts have always been investigating the lone twin. The ying and yang of existence. The arts are predicated on absence - the absence of the thing itself, the idea, the feeling, person or an object. The arts stand in for what is not there or present at a particular moment in time. From the caves of Lascaux to the work of Rachel Whiteread, the arts have all been about non existence at the heart of existence. The arts are the negative charge.

Some arts explicitly engage with this idea of absence. Like Rachel Whiteread's Untitled (One Hundred Spaces 1995). She cast the spaces undet the chair, rendering the chair itself invisible and the invisible space beneath it visible, turning it in turn into a structure which could potentially be sat on or ate at.

Negative space has been the dominant form of Rachel Whiteread's work- turning negative space or emptiness into presence on a huge scale - like that of a house.
It is done to symbolise memory - that other great activity of the mind making present through mental thought what is no longer there.

But flip back in time, and those pictures of the horses, the man with the spear, and you have since earliest days of mankind, records of mankind now absence. Like those early examples of cunnieform - always standing in, always standing for what has been, making the non present, present. It is the art of knowing.

So in many ways, the arts can be seen as the anti-matter of science. Without it, science would not exist. Let alone the science of anti matter itself. The negative charge of the absent. The positive charge of the arts.