Skip navigation

Peter Pesic

Peter Pesic is Tutor and Musician-in-Residence at St. John’s College, Santa Fe. He is the author of Labyrinth: A Search for the Hidden Meaning of Science; Seeing Double: Shared Identities in Physics, Philosophy, and Literature; Abel’s Proof: An Essay on the Sources and Meaning of Mathematical Unsolvability; and Sky in a Bottle, all published by the MIT Press.

Titles by This Author

In the natural science of ancient Greece, music formed the meeting place between numbers and perception; for the next two millennia, Pesic tells us in Music and the Making of Modern Science, “liberal education” connected music with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy within a fourfold study, the quadrivium. Peter Pesic argues provocatively that music has had a formative effect on the development of modern science—that music has been not just a charming accompaniment to thought but a conceptual force in its own right.

Pesic explores a series of episodes in which music influenced science, moments in which prior developments in music arguably affected subsequent aspects of natural science. He describes encounters between harmony and fifteenth-century cosmological controversies, between musical initiatives and irrational numbers, between vibrating bodies and the emergent electromagnetism. He offers lively accounts of how Newton applied the musical scale to define the colors in the spectrum; how Euler and others applied musical ideas to develop the wave theory of light; and how a harmonium prepared Max Planck to find a quantum theory that reengaged the mathematics of vibration. Taken together, these cases document the peculiar power of music—its autonomous force as a stream of experience, capable of stimulating insights different from those mediated by the verbal and the visual.

This title is available in an enhanced iBook version through the iTunes iBook store. This innovative e-book for iOS devices gives seamless and easy access to the text and illustrations; you need merely touch a sound example to hear it and see the score in a moving line.

Children ask, "Why is the sky blue?" but the question also puzzled Plato, Leonardo, and even Newton, who unlocked so many other secrets. The search for an answer continued for centuries; in 1862 Sir John Herschel listed the color and polarization of sky light as "the two great standing enigmas of meteorology." In Sky in a Bottle, Peter Pesic takes us on a quest to the heart of this mystery, tracing the various attempts of science, history, and art to solve it. He begins with the scholars of the ancient world and continues through the natural philosophers of the Enlightenment, the empiricists of the scientific revolution, and beyond. The cast of characters includes Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Kepler, Descartes, Euler, Saussure, Goethe, Rayleigh, and Einstein; but the protagonist is the question itself, and the story tells how we have tried to answer it.

Pesic's odyssey introduces us to central ideas of chemistry, optics, and atomic physics. He describes the polarization of light, Rayleigh scattering, and connections between the appearance of the sky and Avogadro's number. He discusses changing representations of the sky in art, from new styles of painting to new pigments that created new colors for paint. He considers what the sky's nighttime brightness might tell us about the size and density of the universe. And Pesic asks another, daring, question: Can we put the sky in a bottle? Can we recreate and understand its blueness here on earth? This puzzle, he says, opens larger perspectives; questions of the color and brightness of the sky touch on secrets of matter and light, the scope of the universe in space and time, the destiny of the earth, and deep human feelings.

An Essay on the Sources and Meaning of Mathematical Unsolvability

In 1824 a young Norwegian named Niels Henrik Abel proved conclusively that algebraic equations of the fifth order are not solvable in radicals. In this book Peter Pesic shows what an important event this was in the history of thought. He also presents it as a remarkable human story. Abel was twenty-one when he self-published his proof, and he died five years later, poor and depressed, just before the proof started to receive wide acclaim. Abel's attempts to reach out to the mathematical elite of the day had been spurned, and he was unable to find a position that would allow him to work in peace and marry his fiancée.

But Pesic's story begins long before Abel and continues to the present day, for Abel's proof changed how we think about mathematics and its relation to the "real" world. Starting with the Greeks, who invented the idea of mathematical proof, Pesic shows how mathematics found its sources in the real world (the shapes of things, the accounting needs of merchants) and then reached beyond those sources toward something more universal. The Pythagoreans' attempts to deal with irrational numbers foreshadowed the slow emergence of abstract mathematics. Pesic focuses on the contested development of algebra—which even Newton resisted—and the gradual acceptance of the usefulness and perhaps even beauty of abstractions that seem to invoke realities with dimensions outside human experience. Pesic tells this story as a history of ideas, with mathematical details incorporated in boxes. The book also includes a new annotated translation of Abel's original proof.

Shared Identities in Physics, Philosophy, and Literature

The separateness and connection of individuals is perhaps the central question of human life: What, exactly, is my individuality? To what degree is it unique? To what degree can it be shared, and how? To the many philosophical and literary speculations about these topics over time, modern science has added the curious twist of quantum theory, which requires that the elementary particles of which everything consists have no individuality at all. All aspects of chemistry depend on this lack of individuality, as do many branches of physics. From where, then, does our individuality come?

In Seeing Double, Peter Pesic invites readers to explore this intriguing set of questions. He draws on literary and historical examples that open the mind (from Homer to Martin Guerre to Kafka), philosophical analyses that have helped to make our thinking and speech more precise, and scientific work that has enabled us to characterize the phenomena of nature. Though he does not try to be all-inclusive, Pesic presents a broad range of ideas, building toward a specific point of view: that the crux of modern quantum theory is its clash with our ordinary concept of individuality. This represents a departure from the usual understanding of quantum theory. Pesic argues that what is bizarre about quantum theory becomes more intelligible as we reconsider what we mean by individuality and identity in ordinary experience. In turn, quantum identity opens a new perspective on us.

A Search for the Hidden Meaning of Science

Nature has secrets, and it is the desire to uncover them that motivates the scientific quest. But what makes these "secrets" secret? Is it that they are beyond human ken? that they concern divine matters? And if they are accessible to human seeking, why do they seem so carefully hidden? Such questions are at the heart of Peter Pesic's enlightening effort to uncover the meaning of modern science.

Pesic portrays the struggle between the scientist and nature as the ultimate game of hide-and-seek, in which a childlike wonder propels the exploration of mysteries. Witness the young Albert Einstein, fascinated by a compass and the sense it gave him of "something deeply hidden behind things." In musical terms, the book is a triple fugue, interweaving three themes: the epic struggle between the scientist and nature; the distilling effects of the struggle on the scientist; and the emergence from this struggle of symbolic mathematics, the purified language necessary to decode nature's secrets.

Pesic's quest for the roots of science begins with three key Renaissance figures: William Gilbert, a physician who began the scientific study of magnetism; François Viète, a French codebreaker who played a crucial role in the foundation of symbolic mathematics; and Francis Bacon, a visionary who anticipated the shape of modern science. Pesic then describes the encounters of three modern masters—Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein—with the depths of nature. Throughout, Pesic reads scientific works as works of literature, attending to nuance and tone as much as to surface meaning. He seeks the living center of human concern as it emerges in the ongoing search for nature's secrets.