The Universe, Life and Everything

November/December 2009

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The Universe, Life and Everything

Cosmic Reflection: A Narrated Symphony, Op.15Music by Nolan GasserText by Pierre R. Schwob and Lawrence M. Krauss

How do you capture 13.7 billion years of history in a symphony for orchestra and narrator? "Not in real time," says composer Nolan Gasser, PhD '01.

Cosmic Reflection, Gasser's musical exploration of the evolution of our universe, premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on November 2. The piece celebrates NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Telescope, launched in June 2008, and its mission: to search the heavens for sources of gamma-rays, a type of radiation billions of times more energetic than visible light. Cosmologists believe observations of these extreme environments will provide insights into the origin of the universe and the physical laws that govern it—perhaps even suggesting new ones.

Preceded by a prologue, the 40-minute symphony opens with a bang—the Big Bang— followed by a pattern of ever-increasing intervals representing the extraordinary expansion, known as inflation, that the universe underwent in its first moments. A fraction of a second later, inflation drew to a close, and while the universe continued to expand it also cooled. "As inflation ends, the force that's able to actually bring particles together is the force of gravity," Gasser explains. "It's by virtue of gravity that stars were able to form—so gravity has its own music, in the low strings."

Themes representing the creation of matter, formation of galaxies and the explosion of supernovae carry the story forward through the symphony's three movements. The third sees the entrance of a new member of the cosmos: life. Gasser says he hopes the symphony will inspire listeners to reflect on "this absolute miracle that the universe itself created a creature that can look back and understand its own origins. . . . We are children of the stars and grandchildren of the Big Bang."

JENNY PEGG is a doctoral student in history and former Stanford intern.

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