Physics department concert pays homage to genius

April 26, 2005

“If I hadn’t been a physicist, I would have been a musician,” physicist Albert Einstein told the Saturday Evening Post in 1929. “I often think in music. I see my life in terms of music.”

Einstein was an inveterate concert-goer. His favorites included Mozart, Brahms, Bloch and Prokofiev. In honor of the centennial of Einstein’s Miraculous Year (1905, when he published his theory of relativity) and the World Year of Physics, the Department of Physics will present a free public concert of Einstein’s favorite composers on Thursday, April 28.

The performance, with Jack Liebeck on violin, and Inon Barnaton on piano, has global origins. Its Madison connection, UW–Madison physicist Wesley Smith, has been collaborating with European scientists on two major research projects: the ZEUS project in Hamburg, which collides electrons with proton; to explore the inner structure of the proton and the CMS project at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, which will open up the highest energy discovery frontier in particle physics in 2007.

One of Smith’s fellow scientists, Oxford-based Brian Foster, put together a musical tour in honor of the Miraculous Year. Smith booked the program for UW–Madison.

Foster says that music and science are naturally compatible and may even be related. “Music has always seemed to attract physicists,” he says, “perhaps because its clear and complex mathematical structure is at once familiar to us, or perhaps because creativity in music is refreshingly different than creativity in science.”

Indeed, Foster loves music himself. He plays the violin, and it accompanies him as he travels between the accelerators of Europe. Einstein too was an accomplished violinist. “His violin rarely left his side, and he played it often throughout his life,” Foster says of Einstein.

Meanwhile, Liebeck, the 25-year-old virtuoso who will perform in the concert, takes a keen interest in physics. Earlier this month, he and Foster teamed up at an Oxford cafe to explain and illustrate superstring theory, which underlies particle physics.

At UW–Madison, Smith teaches introductory physics to engineering students. “As part of this course I lecture a little on harmonics, pitch and other ‘physics’ aspects of music,” he says. “I would hope that the audience at the Einstein concert comes away with some understanding of how physics and music are linked. I hope they also begin to see that Einstein was a real, multidimensional person, not only a brilliant physicist.”

The brilliant physicist in question no doubt would have had his own wish for concert-goers: “Arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. These aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom.”

The free concert in Mills Concert Hall in the Mosse Humanities Building will begin at 8 p.m. For information, contact Jean Buehlman, 262-4698 or