Instruments

I have long noticed a parallel between musicians and scientists. We both use instruments, and I think we both use them for the same purpose: to learn something about nature by interacting with it. For example, a pH meter uses diffusion across a thin glass wall to determine the concentration of hydrogen ions in a solution. A saxophone uses a vibrating reed on a funny shaped tube to makes possible the exploration of what it’s like to have the blues. I once explored this issue by installing a binocular section in a concert band. The band played “The Village Swallows” by Richard Strauss, a piece that includes a part for bird whistle. Whenever the bird whistled, the members of the binocular section would rise and peer through their instruments.

This all re-occurred to me when I stopped by to watch the organ builders from England put together the new instrument in the studio of Huw Lewis, college organist at Hope College. As of that moment, the builders had mostly worked on the case, a delightful oak cabinet with towers on it to hold collections of pipes. The case just fit with little room to spare at the ceiling. Huw explained to me that the towers were meant to convey the idea that an organ represents a city. Since this idea developed in the Middle Ages, the metaphor was expressed by giving a wall and ramparts to this city.

This was no mere city, not even Paris or Aberystwyth, but a city filled with proportion and harmony, the proportional vibrations that result in the notes and the harmony as various pipes interact with each other. This metaphorical organ-city was meant to be the City of God. Now there’s an instrument!

I thought again about scientific and musical instruments. We have a “high field nuclear magnetic resonance spectrophotometer” that makes use also of proportional vibrations, in this case the vibrations within atoms. We have a “Gene Analyzer” that determines the sequence of subunits in a length of DNA, the notes in each organism’s composition. They’re both impressive, and I thought about comparing either of them to the City of God. Well, why not!

“Instrument” and “Instruct” have their origins in a root word that means to pile up. In this case, I assume we are piling up knowledge about what the world is like, and thus about what God is like. What is God thinking? What is God singing? What is God doing? In God’s city there are many neighborhoods, all busily singing his praises, sometimes with preludes or fugues, sometimes with equations or ratios, sometimes with testable hypotheses, and always with wonder at the depth and variety of it all.

Donald Cronkite is professor of biology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and past Science editor of Perspectives.