'Perpetual Motion': An Adventure Through Space and Time

Anya Grubber '16 News Editor

Last Saturday night, the sounds and sights of discovery filled Sweeney Hall. “Perpetual Motion: Galileo and His Revolutions” was a spectacle, bringing together music, storytelling and visuals.

The concert was part of the “contested cosmologies” seminar organized by the Kahn Institute. Dava Sobel, the current Jacobson nonfiction writer at Smith and celebrated author of “Galileo’s Daughter” as well as a number of other science and science history books, framed the performance with her own dialogue.

Sobel traced the story of the heavens through the discoveries of not only Galileo, but Kepler, Copernicus and others. Woven into the narrative were quotes from these great scientists, who were known to compare celestial bodies to music. Galileo himself was an accomplished musician. His father was an expert in music theory, which was then considered a branch of mathematics, as well as a music teacher, who taught his son how to play a number of instruments (according to Sobel, they agreed that the lute was their favorite).

At the back of the stage there was a very large screen, upon which photographs, diagrams, charts, sketches and videos were projected. The images change gradually; a photograph of the moon above a hill morphed into a satellite image of the stars, which melted into a Copernican diagram of the heliocentric universe. Teacher and artist Marc Wagnon, who creates videos for the musical act Galileo’s Daughters, created the visuals

Sarah Pillow, a soprano, was a part of this musical group and performed alongside Ronn McFarlane on the lute and Mary Anne Ballard on the viola de gamba. Pillow’s clear, high voice rang out with the Latin and Italian words of songs and hymns from the 14th and 15th centuries, when the great astronomers were making their discoveries. All the elements of the performance – the words, music and visuals – came together and complemented each other seamlessly.

Sobel spoke about the planets and how Galileo compared them to different positions of a musical staff, with Saturn corresponding to the lowest notes and Mercury the high ones. As Sobel listed them in order, starting from the farthest reaches of the solar system and moving toward the sun, McFarlane on the lute played a short trickle of notes for each planet, starting in the shadowy low range and ended with chirpy, bright high notes.

Overall, the entire experience was dreamlike; with so many senses stimulated, it was easy to imagine a time when science and art were intertwined. The beauty of discovery was brought to life with ethereal vividness.