Hey Bill Nye! What Makes Music So Human and So Powerful?

Music is an undeniably powerful force, and the science behind it suggests we create music because of some deeply rooted impulses. Bill Nye the Science Guy explains how deep our love of music is.

Aides: Hey Bill Nye, Aiden from California. I'm a musician, a songwriter, and I really would like to know what makes music so human and powerful in its nature? Thank you.

Bill Nye: Well Aiden, as you know I know everything. I don't know why but it sure is deep within us. Now, I remember when I was in school people in psychology class talked about dogs responding to octaves, that is the doubling of the frequency. And so there may be something to that that there are natural resonances that appeal to us that have something to do with our voices. I mean I'm not an expert on this but I've been to China and people will listen to sort of western disco music but other music, like a swing music, that doesn't appeal to them. They don't like it. There's something about the traditions with tonal language speakers versus us that doesn't jive, doesn't fit in. But then in Japan it's not a tonal language but they also got something that sounds more like Chinese to me. I don't know, it is deep within us and I will say that if you want to get to Carnegie Hall practice, practice, practice.


I will say scales are very important. Do scales. That's what it's all based on somewhere down there. And if you're going to play the blues, I'm looking at you with your guitar, if you're going to play the blues you got to get a couple minor chords in there. You got to have a major third and a seventh or something like that. But I'm not sure why, but it's got to be just ultimately based on trying to attract a mate. That's got to be what's down in there.

It is called the universal language — music — yet speakers of different languages prefer different genres. Cultures that communicate using tonal languages, for example, have markedly different musical traditions than western languages. Yet the primacy of music across so many distinct human cultures suggests a deeply embedded drive to create it — and groove to it. In this video, Bill Nye talks science, culture, and musical notation.


Recalling his college psychology classes (Mr. Nye is a career engineer, but sometimes we like to throw him a curve ball), the Science Guy knows that dogs respond to octaves, defined as the doubling of the pitch frequency. So certain qualities of music that are also found in speech affect behavior in natural ways, which also suggests that musical qualities are buried deep in our evolutionary history.

Responding to Big Think fan Aiden, from California, Bill Nye does what he has done throughout his career as a popular science educator: encourage young people to be diligent in their studies, whether the subject is science or music. So if you want to get to Carnegie Hall, it is going to take a lot of practice. After all, refining millions of years of evolutionary forces and expressing it through a string or a brass tube is not easy. And if you want to play jazz, make sure you include a major seventh cord (which is not bad musical knowledge for an engineer).

Ultimately, says Bill Nye, whatever drives us to create music is so deep within us it must serve a very basic purpose. And what purpose is more basic, more fundamental, than procreation? Likely none, and there is likely no greater purpose belonging to music, evolutionarily speaking, than to bring people close together — very close together.

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In 1976

Image source: NASA/JPL

Sunset at the Viking 1 site

As the developer of methods for rapidly detecting and identifying microorganisms, Levin took part in the Labeled Release (LR) experiment landed on Mars by NASA's Viking 1 and 2.

At both landing sites, the Vikings picked up samples of Mars soil, treating each with a drop of a dilute nutrient solution. This solution was tagged with radioactive carbon-14, and so if there were any microorganisms in the samples, they would metabolize it. This would lead to the production of radioactive carbon or radioactive methane. Sensors were positioned above the soil samples to detect the presence of either as signifiers of life.

At both landing sites, four positive indications of life were recorded, backed up by five controls. As a guarantee, the samples were then heated to 160°, hot enough to kill any living organisms in the soil, and then tested again. No further indicators of life were detected.

According to many, including Levin, had this test been performed on Earth, there would have been no doubt that life had been found. In fact, parallel control tests were performed on Earth on two samples known to be lifeless, one from the Moon and one from Iceland's volcanic Surtsey island, and no life was indicated.

However, on Mars, another experiment, a search for organic molecules, had been performed prior to the LR test and found nothing, leaving NASA in doubt regarding the results of the LR experiment, and concluding, according to Levin, that they'd found something imitating life, but not life itself. From there, notes Levin, "Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA's subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results."

Subsequent evidence

Image source: NASA

A thin coating of water ice on the rocks and soil photographed by Viking 2

Levin presents in his opinion piece 17 discoveries by subsequent Mars landers that support the results of the LR experiment. Among these:

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  • Ghost-like moving lights, resembling Earth's will-O'-the-wisps produced by spontaneous ignition of methane, have been seen and recorded on the Martian surface.
  • "No factor inimical to life has been found on Mars." This is a direct rebuttal of NASA's claim cited above.

Frustration

Image source: NASA

A technician checks the soil sampler of a Viking lander.

By 1997, Levin was convinced that NASA was wrong and set out to publish followup research supporting his conclusion. It took nearly 20 years to find a venue, he believes due to his controversial certainty that the LR experiment did indeed find life on Mars.

Levin tells phys.org, "Since I first concluded that the LR had detected life (in 1997), major juried journals had refused our publications. I and my co-Experimenter, Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, then published mainly in the astrobiology section of the SPIE Proceedings, after presenting the papers at the annual SPIE conventions. Though these were invited papers, they were largely ignored by the bulk of astrobiologists in their publications." (Staat is the author of To Mars with Love, about her experience as co-experimenter with Levin for the LR experiments.)

Finally, he and Straat decided to craft a paper that answers every objection anyone ever had to their earlier versions, finally publishing it in Astrobiology's October 2016 issue. "You may not agree with the conclusion," he says, "but you cannot disparage the steps leading there. You can say only that the steps are insufficient. But, to us, that seems a tenuous defense, since no one would refute these results had they been obtained on Earth."

Nonetheless, NASA's seeming reluctance to address the LR experiment's finding remains an issue for Levin. He and Straat have petitioned NASA to send a new LR test to the red planets, but, alas, Levin reports that "NASA has already announced that its 2020 Mars lander will not contain a life-detection test."

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