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CATEGORY: Blog [back]
TOPIC: The Astronaut's Tale: Physics Meets Opera [refresh]
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Blogger Matthew Roberts wrote on Mar. 31, 2012 @ 18:45 GMT
When I was asked to review The Astronaut's Tale (music by Charles Fussell, libretto by Jack Larson), I will admit that I had no idea what to expect. The blurb describes the opera as being about the “confrontation of science and religion” (which certainly raised a red flag!), but the temptation of seeing of an opera written by Larson, the original Jimmy Olsen from the Adventures of Superman, was undeniable. I should preface this review by pointing out that I have not seen the entirety of The Astronaut's Tale. I attended a preview performance which only contained about half of the opera. What I did see was a pleasant surprise; despite a rather (perhaps intentionally) overly melodramatic opening scene, the piece manages to tell a compelling tale about a young man, Abel, aspiring to be an astronaut, and what science is and is not able to provide him.

But first, the opening––a scene that is supposed to display Abel's loss of innocence, as he witnesses his dog being hit by a car and killed. This scene, and the rest of the opera, is presented with a spoken narration that (probably intentionally) is reminiscent of the stereotypical mid-century announcer, somewhere between Rod Sterling and Cary Grant. While this threw me for a loop when it first began (in my notes I underlined "Intentionally camp??" twice), it actually does a surprising job of setting the tone of the piece as the story progresses.

Abel, a hopeful cosmonaut, realizes that he has to become adept at math and science before accomplishing his goals. He meets a wandering peddler of goods (in the program he is described as an “Einstein-like” figure, which I think is a bit of a stretch) who sells him a programmable calculator, which apparently is the key to academic success. Abel, initially skeptical of modern science, and the Peddler have a great duet in which they contrast the biblical and modern cosmological genesis stories, with Abel recounting the biblical version and the Peddler correcting him with science. This begins with low-hanging fruit, equating “Let there be light” with the big bang, but also contains more subtle comparisons such as God dividing day from night compared to the scientific fact that matter and energy are one and the same, and the belief that God created man in his image against the statement that the cosmos is the actual “image of God.” The music for this duet is a delight, with Abel supported by more traditional church music while the Peddler sings with a sound that sounds large, vast, and dark, but just as beautiful.

What I appreciated most about this piece, which captures a lot of the tone of the opera as a whole, is that while it compares these two ideas, it does not simply do so in the traditional "I'm right/you're wrong, I'm smart/you're stupid" structure that a lot of "science versus religion" debate quickly devolves to in modern discourse (side note: there is a monkey joke, but it is not mean-spirited). It's not that the Book of Genesis is a laughable joke--it was an attempt to explain the world we see around us, written when the scientific tools at our disposal were obviously not what we have now. I'm sure there are people out there who will find a way to take offense at this, but I thought the subject was treated with appropriate dignity. And I am happy to report that, to the best of my ability, all of the facts laid out were right (the age of the universe is approximated as twenty-thousand million years, which is pretty spot-on!).

Abel eventually works his way up in the American rocket program, and meets a tragic fate as his first flight is on a Challenger-like disaster; his last living line was the now famous, “Uh-oh.” It is at this point that I felt the opera (or at least the parts of it I was able to see in preview) lost some of its focus--it dissolves into a piece of the afterlife being "in space," which from my perhaps cynical physicist point of view is not as interesting, though it was still lovely to listen to. I understand the point being made: that there are some things, such as the afterlife, which are beyond the realm of what science is tasked to explain, but to me it just came off a bit too vague and sounded of empty philosophy. I won't say this spoiled the whole show, but I will say it bothered me more than the melodrama of pet death.

On the whole, though, the opera was great-- the music was highly enjoyable, and I'm always happy to see a heroic lead portrayed as someone whose trials and tribulations involve learning mathematics and physics. I will admit, though, that the whole thing made me sad mostly for the current state of the American space program (an opera review is not the right place for a political diatribe so I will stop here). The Astronaut's Tale should remind people both of the majesty of space exploration and the amazing story of how our universe was born, and perhaps even inspire them to call up their Congressman and demand more funding for basic sciences! Sorry, couldn't help myself.


Matthew Roberts is a string theorist at NYU.

Excerpts from "The Astronaut's Tale" were recorded on Sunday, March 18, 2012, during Encompass New Opera Theatre's performance at the Manhattan School of Music. The performers were Brittany Palmer (Ann), Eapen Leubner (The Astronaut), Frank Basile (Peccavit, the old Peddler), and Christopher Vettel (The Narrator). The Encompass performance was the first-time the opera had been staged. Prior to that, "The Astronaut's Tale" was performed in concert by Collage New Music in 1998.

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Georgina Parry wrote on Apr. 3, 2012 @ 07:58 GMT
Hi Mathew,

thank you for that review. Enjoyed reading it. Sounds good. I think they were brave to attempt that project. It has the potential to leave a lot of people a bit dissatisfied because it isn't one thing or the other; but its something else which manages to be both. The topics dealt with are also highly controversial and emotive.

Perhaps music and art have a way of presenting ideas that allows difficult subjects to be dealt with more easily. I think perhaps it is the complexity of a lot of music, that requires it to be dealt with by the right hemisphere of the brain. The imaginative side which is happier bringing different ideas together rather than breaking them up and distilling, or dealing with them in a logical linear sequence.

A lot of popular music deals with "difficult" subjects too expressing meaning both in the music and the poetry of the lyrics. It can be acceptable because it is music. Things can be said, impressions given and ideas conveyed, that it might not be possible, seemly, or acceptable to say or suggest in conversation. I find that difference in response according to context of presentation interesting. May have a connection with "The framing effect" bias, which is how we vary our judgements according to how identical information is presented or framed.

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Georgina Parry replied on Apr. 3, 2012 @ 23:39 GMT
Not knocking the opera. Haven't seen/heard it so can't comment on it. Not sure if the concept was taken as it was an interesting challenge or out of a desire to see theology and science united. I think it is right for there to be a healthy antagonism between Church and science.False parallels, drawn from superficial similarity, but based on misunderstandings are not really helpful to either, though they might have a feel good factor.

"Darwin and the Beagle", Alan Moorhead 1969: Stage by stage as they travelled the world young Darwin had pitted his notions against the blank wall of FitzRoy's uncompromising faith-it had been like battering down the Church itself and by that very opposition had been encouraged to embark upon that other long, hard speculative journey." :Darwin wrote "delight is weak a term to express the feelings of a naturalist who has for the first time wandered by himself through the Brazilian forest." Alan Moorhead:"amid all this beauty there was a never ending menace. Nothing was safe. To prey and be preyed upon was the condition of nature." There is a similar (but funny) revelation in the cartoon animation "Madagascar", The animals awed to see the beauty of the wild for the first time are horrified when confronted by the reality of a natural food chain.

Nature survives by devouring itself. There is no beauty of creation without the other side of the coin the the struggle and destruction. That is just a part of the function of a continuously altering recycling universe, it seems to me. Without struggle and survival or death, the beauty of biology would not have occurred. Its development might be imagined along a time line but that's all, -it- can't be spread across time because it has been recycled. String like paths through the many iterations of the universe making up a life time of an object can be imagined. As if the former iterations still existed. That's not through the material universe -that is- though.

The idea that all of that adaptive complexity was produced during inflation of the universe into the space time continuum does not seem to fit comfortably. It can't fit with the Church's teachings. As it is incompatible with self determination, personal morality and responsibility. All crimes and atrocities being committed are the responsibility of the universe that formed them at inflation into the space-time continuum not the human perpetrators, in that "reality". As fate is written and unchanging.The mathematics can still be be beautiful and admirable without it having to be a construct corresponding to reality.

I wonder how many toes I can tread on simultaneously...

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Steve Dufourny replied on Apr. 4, 2012 @ 11:27 GMT
Georgina, no ! you cannot say that the equilibrium is an equal between the recycling. The generality is the harmonization, the destroying is just a step of evolution for a correct recycling of particules and their memmories. The biological lifes evolve like all.

A1ll roads do not go to Roma Georgina. The superimposings must be rational. The works of Tegmark about maths are interesting, that said ALL ROADS DO NOT GO TO ROMA !!!

The objectivity Georgina alsays will be the road of foundamentals, rational and deterministic.

Regards Georgina

for this platform,

Maths are precise and a tool for a correct interpretation of our physicality.The rest is vain. The strings and the geometrical algebras like the extradimensions are justa play of computing where the laws disappear.If several people think that all roads go to Roma with pseudo superimposings, so I suspect an other problem.If the vanity and the monney is prefered instead of tyhe real sciences, so it is very sad for these people.

How many toes you say, only one real and foundamental, mine in all humility. If they want to share the cake , no problem, if they want the other road, no probelm. My faith is so important that I suggest a very good strategy you know even if I am alone. If they think that the bridge between 7 and 8 with 12 will give the nobel prize, so I suggest that you buy a criminal to kill me.Because you know the truth will be a reality! The optimization and the imropvement, let ma laugh with universality.Ahahah you are going to improve ahahah, of course of course , because it exists a team and monney, of course of course.

Mr Aguire, Mr Tegmark, the free will and the real correlations must be rational !

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Wilhelmus de Wilde de Wilde replied on Apr. 5, 2012 @ 15:31 GMT
Good afternoon Steve, I found an interesting video on spheres for you:



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Georgina Parry wrote on Apr. 4, 2012 @ 22:02 GMT

thank you for replying.If you are referring to what I said in another post, that pattern is between maximum complexity and maximum simplicity, (which are so different they are almost if not the same) then yes I stand by that, unless shown how it is wrong. Also that the recycling produces a pattern because the last output becomes the next input and so on.

I agree not all...

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Georgina Parry wrote on Apr. 4, 2012 @ 22:56 GMT
I am now interested in sets and how they seem to correspond more easily with nature than more abstract arithmatic.I am learning that all arithmetic can be expressed as sets and so this could be a useful way of uniting different types of mathematical description that have best suited the description of particular aspects of nature.I think category theory rather than being an obscure dead end is probably a very useful descriptive tool, and I intend to learn more about it.Get some books and get some rudimentary knowledge so I can understand what other people are talking about.

I can see a potential correlation between the mathematical conundrum of different infinities with there being different facets and aspects of the entirety of reality. So the space-time continuum of the observer is a continuum which will relate to one of the infinities; the Object universe which is the material Source is made of separate parts not a continuum and so it will relate to another of the infinities and the historical imagined time line of former iterations could relate to another.I'm not saying they are infinite in themselves but that the different kinds of numbers might be best suited to different parts of the entirety of reality. The mathematical correlation is relevant as it could provide additional evidence for the validity of the explanatory construct.


I think I have the potential to offend far more people than just you.I'm not sure what particular aspect of what I have said or done causes offence to you. I hope you will not lump what I am trying to do in with what other people are doing just because I am now trying to understand their approaches.Seeing if they justify or are able to defend what they say, and the assumptions that are made, or seeing whether it is compatible with a holistic explanatory approach. I have no ill will towards you, I wish you well.

I think that protesting against what others are doing is counter productive to you, and me. It would be better to demonstrate the merits of your own work, which should be judged on its own merits not compared to something completely different,(which may or may not have merit in its own right).Showing someone else is mistaken will not show that your model is correct. IMHO There are many different ways of looking at and describing the same thing and not just a single and only black and white correct answer.That might not be what mathematicians want, or mathematically minded physicists but I (and you) have come from the biological sciences where complex interrelationships of parts and processes and entities are considered, things are less black and white.There are layers of complexity- the biochemistry- the physiology -the form- the function- the behaviour-the ecology . No one part is correct alone making the others incorrect.

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Georgina Parry replied on Apr. 5, 2012 @ 01:21 GMT
I have thought that the universe has a geometry and therefore a form of geometric algebra might be best to describe it. But have not got to grips with how. I don't think the time dimension is a part of the foundational geometry of the Object reality but it is a part of the observer's reality. So the two different facets need two different description which have a one way relationship IE the Object reality gives input to the Image reality but not the other way around, which corresponds to the one way arrow of time.

In the Object reality it is clear to me that 3 dimensions of space (if 3 are considered) are not static (even though it might have been assumed they are, as that is how the image reality makes us think, though this space is not an image reality). Instead due to rotation and orbit of the earth and movement of the solar system there is a motion which is a rotation, translation and scaling transformation, the Action of the Earth and a spatial change corresponding with the passage of time.

From a three spatial dimension perspective that would have to be be a 4th spatial dimension affecting the universal position and orientation of all of the other dimensions.A scalar rather than vector change. That motion is what I think is giving gravity. The motion distorts the medium of light giving the effect of curved observed space-time rather than that curvature being the cause of gravity.The object isn't in space-time but in space. That's not saying Einstein was wrong about there being curvature of space-time but that the interpretation of it as a cause of gravity has to be wrong. At least it is to my mind.

That motion might also be relevant to observed red shift, a possible cause of another optical effect only. Which would also mean that working back from inferred expansion to a stating singularity is based upon a misinterpretation of the optical effect and assuming the space-time image to be the entirety of the universe, IE the material universe rather than just image. That is not to diminish the achievement of the cosmologists who just received Nobel prizes for their work on expansion of the universe.Or the mathematics of Stephen Hawking or Einstein for that matter. Just saying it may not be what it is thought to be. I am not saying the effect is not occurring.

Following the discussion of Joy Christians model, on another thread, I have become aware of the great difficulty of the mathematics even for competent mathematicians. It makes me wonder about whether a form of geometric algebra is the best way to describe what is going on in the universe after all. I have found the disharmony over something I have always thought was very precise and therefore indisputable (mathematics) fascinating. It has been another useful learning experience.

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Georgina Parry replied on Apr. 5, 2012 @ 03:08 GMT
I haven't really talked about scale. I think this is another way in which there is a difference between Image and Object reality. The Image reality seen in everyday life is produced from the EM reflected from the surface of objects whether a cup or the moon. It is for the most part a superficial reality in that it does not extend beyond those surfaces to reveal what exists and is happening at other scales. Microscopes can be used to obtain images at smaller scales, telescopes at larger scales but still it is only possible to see what has interacted with the "medium" used to transmit the data at that scale, so an image can be formed. One scale is considered at a time not all scales simultaneously.

The Object reality does exist at all scales simultaneously and so the patterns of nature are not just a pattern but a pattern, within a pattern, within a pattern and so on. Which is a multilayered complexity- but which can still arise from very simple relationships feeding back and amplifying together with and interrelated with those relationships giving differentiation into different kinds of form. This means to me that relationships at all scales might need to be considered. Big changes might affect the small changes or cause different kinds of small changes, and small changes can lead to big changes affecting other big changes.

I'm not sure I have expressed that very well. I think the mathematics "in vivo" the relationships somehow extend across scales too.It is probably a mistake to think that only the smallest scale is relevant or only the largest scale or only the macroscopic scale somewhere in between. It all matters as its all interacting. Which just complicates things further or perhaps I should say just makes it more interesting.For me its like the ecology of microscopic organisms to the ecology of vertebrates all co existing in the same environment.

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Paul Reed replied on Apr. 5, 2012 @ 07:00 GMT

"It makes me wonder about whether a form of geometric algebra is the best way to describe what is going on in the universe after all".

It is very unlikely. As per the Copenhagen Interpreation, and space-time, these models involve incorrect presuppositions about how reality occurs and its fundamental logic.


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Georgina Parry wrote on Apr. 16, 2012 @ 23:14 GMT
Hi Mathew,

You said -"The Astronaut's Tale should remind people both of the majesty of space exploration and the amazing story of how our universe was born,........"

I have said a little of how I feel about "the amazing story" of how the universe was born and given a quote from cosmologist Fred Hoyle, from "Big Bang" By Simon Singh. (Which is a book mostly dealing with the historical development of the theory and the progressive accumulation of evidence in its favour.)

There is another book that I have read which paints a picture contrary to the usual romantic/heroic portrayal of space exploration. "Dark side of the moon" (The magnificent madness of the American lunar quest) by Gerard De Groot, Vintage, London, 2008. Described as "Caustic, absorbing and astute OBSERVER."

It ends well with these words- "Norman Cousins once said that what was most significant about the lunar voyage was not that men set foot on the moon, but that they set eye on the earth."..In other words, it took a 240, 000-mile journey for men to discover how stunted is their imagination. If there is a lesson to be learned it is the futility of seeking fulfilment in outer space. We need to judge ourselves by who we are and not where we go. The moon voyage was the ultimate ego trip. Hubris took America to the moon, a barren, soulless place where humans do not belong and can not flourish. If the voyage had any positive benefit at all, it has reminded us that everything that is good resides upon the earth." "Dark side of the moon" by Gerard De Groot.

I'm not stating my opinion or making any negative comment, just giving another point of view on "the majesty of space exploration".

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Wilhelmus de Wilde de Wilde replied on Apr. 17, 2012 @ 15:01 GMT
@Georgina: I agree with you, furthermore there is not only the material way to explore "space", it can be done with your consciousness which travelsat at any chosen velocity also n x c, or still better : it is like entanglement immediate. In our bodies we can reach the moon, big thing ! It is a distance not important in the universe. With our eyes we can look in the past of the universe but it is our consciousness that forms the history. Exploration of "space" are we talking about the known three dimensions that we use to describe space? Or are we also trying to explore other "spaces" withother dimensions (directions) ? Can we construct once a quantum computer that will generate another "consciousness" this consciousness not being 100% the same as ours so perhaps being able to take other "directions" (dimensions) or paralel universes and because it can communicate with us through the quantum machine we can communicate and investigate these unknown and untill now unreachable universes.

think free


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Georgina Parry replied on Apr. 18, 2012 @ 00:59 GMT
correction that quote should have said:... everything that is good resides on Earth. "Dark side of the moon" By Gerard De Groot. It was my bad grammar not Gerard de Groot's!


I think there is a valuable role for space exploration by artificial devices, which are able to retrieve information without harming or endangering human individuals.(If the monetary cost of such projects is ignored.)It can help increase our knowledge and appreciation of our solar system, including the dangers it holds. I have appreciated the images of the planets and moons of the solar system obtained by various space probes. Seen in books such as "The new atlas of the Universe" by Patrick Moore, Arch Cape Press, NY, 1988. Detailed maps of the lunar and Martian surfaces, detailed pictures of Saturn's moons and Jupiter's rings. Not something -my- consciousness could have dreamed up unaided. I don't think exploration by the consciousness is a substitute for actually getting out there, its something very different. Imagining myself at the supermarket does not bring home the groceries! That's not saying that human consciousness is not as valuable. It is able to explore what is possible rather than just what is and, as I think you were implying, there may be ways of thinking that we haven't even thought about yet.

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