“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Back in June, scientists announced the discovery that the universe is vibrating with low frequency gravity waves. Music analogies proliferated. It was a “cosmic bass note”, a “hum”, a “chorus”, the “background sound of the universe”. Astronomer Adam Frank, writing in The Atlantic, put it most poetically:
The whole universe is humming. Actually, the whole universe is Mongolian throat singing. Every star, every planet, every continent, every building, every person is vibrating along to the slow cosmic beat.
Frank is moved and excited by this discovery. And he thinks you and I should be excited too:
The gravitational-wave background is huge news for the cosmos, yes, but it’s also huge news for you … All of a sudden, we know that we are humming in tune with the entire universe, that each of us contains the signature of everything that has ever been. It’s all within us, around us, pushing us to and fro as we hurtle through the cosmos.
I think Frank is right to be excited, but I don’t think this discovery is the existential breakthrough he wants us to believe it is. Surely we already knew that we were all connected to the rest of the universe—part of the same spacetime continuum? The real issue is what that connection really means. Where does it come from and where does it take us?
Nothing and nowhere seem to be the answers for scientific materialism. Whatever forces play on us, we remain blobs of protoplasm bobbing about on a dark ocean. The fact that there are waves doesn’t really make much difference. There is no meaning and no purpose; the universe came from nothing and is going back to nothing. And yet modern cosmologists and astronomers can’t help looking for meaning. They grasp after scientific facts that might justify a sense of connectedness to a bigger story: we are all made of stardust; we are all moved by the same gravity.
As I have just stated, I’m not convinced. But where does this longing to be part of a bigger story come from? Why do scientists feel the need to put this spiritual lacquer on their discoveries? Why do science writers hear about an oscillation and lunge for the language of music? Could it be that these impulses are part of a much more ancient intuition that the world really is full of beauty and song?
Music of the Spheres
Our medieval forebears also spoke of heavenly music. They believed that the heavenly bodies played a great symphony, varying with planetary speed and eccentricity. They imagined the worlds beneath the Primum Mobile (the outer shell of the cosmos), and the great Empyrean (heaven proper) beyond, as full of song—echoing with praise to the Creator like the vault of a Cathedral. Of course they didn’t literally hear that music any more than we hear gravity waves. Perhaps they had less empirical warrant for their imaginings.
And yet unlike modern scientists, the medieval doctors had a cosmology that made sense of such song; that expected it; that justified its description as song. Because they believed in the biblical universe, they believed there really was a Composer and a score; a great order that made music beautiful. The world was full song because it echoed the beauty and harmony of its Creator.
The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy.
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation … while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
(Job 38:4, 7)
In The Discarded Image (1964) C.S. Lewis contrasts the perspective with that produced by scientific materialism:
Whatever else a modern feels when he looks at the night sky, he certainly feels that he is looking out—like one looking out from the saloon entrance on to the dark Atlantic or from the lighted porch upon dark and lonely moors. But if you accepted the Medieval Model you would feel like one looking in. The Earth is ‘outside the city wall’. When the sun is up he dazzles us and we cannot see inside. Darkness, our own darkness, draws the veil and we catch a glimpse of the high pomps within; the vast, lighted concavity filled with music and life.
For modern astronomers like Adam Frank, discoveries like this allow a temporary re-enchantment. Just for a moment we can again imagine the vault of the heaven ringing with joyful song—even though there is really no song and no story. But the ancients had a view that actually justified that imagination—no matter what their scientific errors. They knew what Adam Frank and the rest of us want to be true. Though knowing less, they knew much more.
An earlier version of this article was first posted on Andrew Moody’s website.