Mysteries of Dubb ~ Harmony of the Spheres

The Harmony of the Spheres is the classic musical metaphor for a meaningful universe. It's roots are ancient, going back to at least 3000 BC in Sumeria. The theory was updated by Pythagoras around 500 BC, and by Johannes Kepler around 1600 AD. But does it still make sense in the 21st century? Let's find out, shall we?

First things first: what is the Harmony of the Spheres? Well, it's supposed to be an inaudible, harmonious, humming kind of sound (yep, confusing) produced by the planets as they spin around the Earth or the Sun (depending on the exact moment in history). Each planet is said to produce its own typical sound or note, according to its orbit, size, weight and so on. Together, the planets produce a nice big fat interplanetary major chord, or something like that.

Creation myth
To get a better idea of the Harmony of the Spheres-meme we should look at the function of myths. And we don't mean false ideas. Myths are deep, archetypal stories about the Gods, the beginning of the Universe and about heroic adventures ~ from Hercules to King Arthur or even Steve Jobs. The Book of Genesis is an example of an oldskool creation myth, the Big Bang is a modern science-based creation myth. The Harmony of the Spheres is not always thought of as a creation myth but it is one, as Plato shows in the Timaeus in a numerological story about the creation of the World Soul.

If you don't know Joseph Campbell's monomyth theory and his ideas about the role of myths in the context of personal growth, shared values, social cohesion and so on we recommend checking it out.

Update or perish
Campbell points out that ancient myths do not have eternal life. A fully functional myth has to account for most of the knowledge and experiences shared by the members of the society that has produced (or inherited) the myth. That's why myths need updates every now and then. Otherwise they become stale, artificial and eventually obsolete as a culture develops, and as science progresses. The need for a revision is quite clear in the case of religious myths found in the Bible (a project that seems to be failing). The ancient idea that the sky is ordered by the Gods in a musical way also needs a little update because since Johannes Kepler's last major revision, some 400 years ago, astronomers, astrologers, philosophers and tuning theorists have developed new insights.

By the way, a meaningful universe is perhaps not the most popular concept right now but the mechanistic myth responsible for this attitude (in the last few centuries) may again become obsolete.

A short history of The Hum
Through the ages, many texts have been written about the Harmony of the Spheres. A good introduction is The Harmony of the Spheres by Joscelyn Godwin. We'll just outline some important developments.

1. Earliest sources
Contrary to popular belief Pythagoras did not 'invent' The Hum. It's obvious that he was inspired by more ancient sources. In recent years the earliest part of the story has been rewritten by Ernest G. McClain. We've discussed some of his insights over here but if you want to dive right in, his book The Myth of Invariance is a great place to start. Another crucial text is The Pythagorean Plato.

Building on the insights of McClain, the Dutch musician/philosopher Siemen Terpstra has uncovered a 'lost' musical heritage in the writings of Pre-Socratic philosopers like Heraclitus, Anaximander and Parmenides. His work in progress Separating the Earth and the Sky is essential stuff. But in his study The Planetary Monochord Terpstra actually 'debunks' the Harmony of the Spheres insofar as it's based on a classic Pythagorean kind of scale, for reasons of tuning precision. In a paper titled The Law of the Octave and Natural Resonances Terpstra finds that 53-tet (dividing an octave in 53 equal parts) fits some of the important cycles in the solar system quite well.

2. Pythagoras
Just like Socrates, Pythagoras never wrote anything down. If you'd search for ancient texts describing the Harmony of the Spheres you'd be disappointed. The first references in writing come from Plato and Aristotle. A few centuries later, detailed proposals for a 'Planetary Monochord' start surfacing in the Hellenistic world. These are usually attributed to Pythagoras but that's mostly a matter of convention. Nevertheless, the concept of a consonant harmonic hum produced by the planets is well established around this period. The influence of the old body of texts on medieval and renaissance philosophy and music is considerable. Think Boethius, Marsilio Ficino and so on. 

3. Johannes Kepler
The astronomer/astrologer Johannes Kepler was obsessed with interplanetary harmony. He worked on the most interesting, and also the most scientific update of the Harmony of the Spheres since Pythagoras. His masterpiece Harmonices Mundi is quite perplexing. It's a wonderful blend of cutting edge 17th century astronomy and Pythagorean/Platonic esoterica. Kepler is sure that our solar system sounds like a big major chord but if we examine his calculations using 21st century astronomical insights, we have to conclude that his model is a bit too simple and fanciful. So we could say that Harmonices Mundi marks the end of a great musical creation myth, because of a lack of physical proof. But wait, perhaps there's more.

21st century celestial numerology
If we simply think of harmonia universalis as physical order based on stuff like Pythagorean whole number ratios, resonance and so on, we can find more complex but equally harmonious patterns in the proportions of the solar system. A small group of renegade astronomers is currently working on a theory about physical interactions between the Sun and the planets. Certain couplings between the most important bodies of the solar system seem to keep the planets, the dwarf planets, the asteroids and the smaller cosmic debris in their proper place. In turn, the planets may be influencing the activity of the Sun. It's a controversial theory but it's one of the best we have. (Mainstream astronomers don't really know how the Sun works, they can't even predict solar activity cycles properly.)

Funny enough those same renegade scientists are also taking celestial numerology to the next level using the Golden Ratio or Φ ~ a number strongly related to harmonic proportions. If these calculations are correct it would seem that the solar system, or rather the cosmos is replete with harmonic numerology. Sounds rather familiar, doesn't it?

By the way, if you wonder why you've never heard of these guys before, that's because their research has implications for the global warming debate, which is so politicized that right now scientific theories or even facts don't matter. Furthermore, the idea that the planets influence the activity of the Sun smells of astrology. So there are two compelling reasons for career-scientists to avoid this stuff.

To Hum or not to Hum
From a 21st century point of view we may safely conclude that the solar system does not produce a monumental major chord. Not even close says Siemen Terpstra and who are we to disagree. But wait, The Hum is an inaudible sound, so who cares, right? In this case, arguments based on precision alone are just (pseudo)scientific talk.

The fundamental idea behind the Harmony of the Spheres isn't so much the imaginary cosmic noise. The massive interplanetary chord is a metaphor and it should not be taken too literally (the string in string theory is also a musical metaphor; the whole of nature is pretty much one big wave phenomenon). Basically, the Harmony of the Spheres is a creation myth about Divine Harmony with a capital H in the sense of a meaningful, harmoniously ordered Universe.

To research this layer of The Hum we need a specialized toolkit. Physics and astronomy don't deal in meaning. Astrology is a better tool for this job, especially since it uses a combination of astronomical, metaphorical and even mythological concepts. Fortunately, and contrary to popular belief, this doesn't mean that we have to throw out objectivity. If the concept of scientific astrology sounds a bit paradoxical, that's because it's relatively hard to produce rigorous proof using astrological techniques but it's possible in principle. In fact, the 21st century combination of big data and machine learning makes this kind of research a bit easier. It can for example reveal collective 'astrological' patterns in human behaviour. 

On that note, the last word is for the scientific astrologer and mystic Theodor Landscheidt. Here's a quote from an article he published in The Astrological Journal in May 1998 (volume 40 nr. 3).

Kepler was the first and last astronomer who looked seriously at ratios of distances of the planets from the Sun. In his "Mysterium cosmographicum" he related the distances of the planets to the Platonic solids. The attitude of modern science towards such an approach was correctly expressed by Nobel prize recipient Weinberg: "Kepler went wrong in supposing that the planets are important. We now understand that the planets and their orbits are the result of a sequence of historical accidents and that there is no reason to expect any relations among the sizes of their orbits that would be mathematically simple and beautiful."

Yet it was Kepler who turned out to be on the right track. When I investigated the ratios of distances from the Sun of pairs of neighbouring planets - Mercury's distance to Venus' distance. Venus' distance to Earth's distance and so on including the mean distance of the planetoids - and calculated the mean of these nine individual ratios to get a quantity that characterizes the solar system as a whole, I was astonished to find that this value 0.62 is close to the Golden number 0.618 when the perihelion distances are taken. The very small difference 0.002 might be looked at as a stability parameter that indicates how far the actual structure of the planetary distances in the solar system deviates from the ideal state defined by the Golden section. [...] Thus we can see how the stabilising function of the Golden section governs the distance structure of the planets and thereby counteracts chaos in the planetary orbits caused by resonance amplification of mutual disturbances. In the end, this balance of potentials of stability and instability preserves the solar system's structure over billions of years. [...] If we step back and scan the bigger picture, it becomes evident that astrological aspects have deep roots that go down to the Platonic realm of mathematical structures encompassing as abstract features as the polarity of rational and irrational numbers. And who would have thought that valid aspects are based on a physical principle that guarantees the stability of dynamical systems including the solar system, our cosmic home.