Harold hit the key again. The Piano Key rang out its …well, Key Note: C4 (Middle C). The Piano was well tuned, and the note was ‘perfect in tone’ with a frequency of 261.6 Hz.
NOTE: When A440 Hz is the standard pitch to which the piano is tuned.
Around the room were three other piano’s, a collection of books, vases, lace doilies, hanging pictures, rugs, a few chairs, and even a small bird (living) in a wire cage. All of them monitored by software that managed to scan each object as the vibrations of the “C” tingled them with its clear range of frequency. Harold was a bit of a genius, a bit of a tinkerer, a bit of an engineer, and a lot of curiosity. Not only did Harold design, and write the code for the software, more than half the scanning instruments he designed were one of originals too.
Harold noted the affect of the C note on all of the aforementioned objects, and two others that weren’t mentioned. Me, and my friend Sarah. You see Sarah and I, are both Science Writers. We had heard of Harold from a neighbor of his. We were at a Science Convention in Zurich just chatting in the Lobby, as one must if you cover these sorts of events, especially in Zurich where the hospitality room is truly hospitable: excellent hosts, fantastic wines, and the most delectable treats available that can be eaten using just your fingers or a cracker. It sets the mood for amiable deep casual conversations, with should be an oxymoron- but is not. Go to Zurich, attend a five day meeting. You will discover that food, thought, and music will blend in almost perfect harmony, when the company, food, and musicians are all accomplished.
Harold, we discovered, lived in a small suburb of a medium sized down in the United States of America. He had a solid career as an Engineer at IBM, with more than a 100 papers, and almost as many patents. He was a bit of a curmudgeon though, and stayed mostly by himself. He was however always pleasant in his conversation, polite in his demeanor, and willing to help with any physical labor, or engineering knowledge. He was an excellent choice to walk through Nature with, and an even better choice - if you are looking for true friendship.
He hid his massive intelligence behind his shaggy clothes, the collective seemingly disconnected display of both scientific and ordinary objects strewn about his house and yard, as if to display Entropy in action. To all outside appearances, he was a gentle eccentric, who brought up disarmingly insightful questions while sharing a beer with you. Often people would speak with Harold, and find themselves pondering deep questions, or astounded by the wonder of math, engineering, or art, in the quiet words of Harold. It never dawned on most folks, that Harold had made them think. Nor did most realize that when they did think, Harold had already thought more. I told you, he was a bit of a genius. One that cleverly disguised that genius behind a friendly beer, and some lovely wood work.
When Sarah and I , heard from Wolfgang ( A noted physicist and philosopher) at the afore mentioned Hospitality Hour, about his long conversations with an old American Engineer about whether the mind is simply a piano key, struck by the right electro chemical cascade to send a soft stroke of information down a single neuron. Or…if the mind was somehow more than a piano key, and did not follow the mechanical lock and key mechanisms of the physical world. We were polite , at first, then we became engaged in the conversation. An hour later we were intrigued. Later that afternoon, after a flurry of emails, brief intense phone calls, and a quiet invitation- Sarah and I were on the Red Eye to the USA. Harold met us at the airport, and here, less than 24 hours after hearing of Harold’s work, we are sitting in his living room, surrounded by the clutter of an organized mind (everything about Harold seems to be a contradiction, or oxymoron, until you meet him. Then, like magic, it all makes sense.)
So it was that we witnessed Harold hit the piano key, several times, with several different pressures. We stared- fascinated- like a five year old watching ants on a popsicle stick covered with left over sugary goo- at the read outs placed all over the room. The sensors shot back tons of data in nanoseconds, and Harold’s proprietary software and hardware, turned that data into charts, graphs, and lights displaying the readouts. He spoke in that gentle “let’s have a beer, and go for a walk “ tone, that had so won over Wolfgang and many others. It was a tone bereft of judgement, superiority, or vanity. It was the voice of a kind child leading their little brother through the woods, or a nights homework. “Let me help show the way, if you would like…” it was that kind of voice.
“You see Sarah, Levi, look!” “
We peered intently at the various quivering lines on the screen as they collated themselves into patterns apparent to Harold, but jumbled and quirky to our eyes.
Using his pen as a pointer he traced the outlines of the “living objects scan”, with the “non living objects scan.”
“Here, in blue, you can see all of the surfaces that reflected the sound. Here, in red, all of the surfaces that absorbed the sound. Now, the green oscillation is simply how the sound resonated in the object it hit. So, if you look at the data from say, the pillow on the couch, or that thick oriental rug there… the sound “dies.” Nothing comes back out at all. But look at the plant wavelengths. See the spike? And notice not only did the Middle C on all three pianos respond with the expected (but unknown until just a century ago) sympathetic harmony of the Middle C, but there was also a sympathetic resonance with both undertones and overtones…tones we didn’t even know were in the note!
(we weren’t kidding, he had everything , and i mean everything in that room scanned when the note hit it, inducing us. The only difference between us and the inanimate objects…is we were wearing skull nets that measured our brain wave responses to the single Middle C note. )
Continuing on, with a growing enthusiasm and vigor Harold continued”
“Now, here is the curve your brains responded with - notice you and Sarah had different responses to the tone. I only hit a single note. If the brain followed only the physical laws of sound vibration, then neural pathways for sound should be the only pathways taken. You should just hear the note. If you have perfect pitch, or relative pitch, then you should have heard the note perfectly. That should be the end of it. Air pressure, frequency, amplitude, some voltage gates, and a bunch of acetylcholine - follow Coulomb’s law and the rest should all be predictable. Nothing other than simple Mechanics. “
Sarah and I nodded. We knew the model. Vitalists versus Mechanists, had been around almost as long as Humans.
“Now, look at this.”
He shifted to two other screens. On one of them was a human brain- with a gold track and a green track. Those turned out to be the areas in Sarah’s Brain, and my brain, where the Middle C caused some kind of reaction. On the other screen was an outline of the plants in the room, and a sidebar register of the gasses released by them. Plants, we discovered in Harold’s entropy driven living room, use gasses as pheromones to communicate with other plants…and he found a way to measure that too. Our respect for Harold’s mind and work, was rapidly approaching that of Wolfgang’s. Who had told us at the Zurich luncheon :
“If you want to see true genius at work, go visit Harold. You will find that you know nothing. He will act like he knows nothing. He made me humble with his humility. I have a Nobel Prize, he should have at least five!”
“If you look at your screen, and the screen of the plant, you will see that the sound did not just go to the centers for hearing. For plants can’t “hear.” Plants are sensitive to vibrations , and maybe it was a coincidence that the note triggered the release of pheromones (gasses). But look at the analysis of those gasses. The Plant is sending out a signal saying it is “safe.” The other plant is sending out a signal that says: “It is okay to flower.” So the plants felt “safe” upon hearing the note. The rug , and all other inanimate objects in the room, did not react at all. Except of the subharmonics of the piano strings.
Now, look closely at your brains, and the Gold track which is you, Levi. The Green Track is Sarah’s. You both heard the note, a middle C. But look at this! In Sarah’s brain, the music area lit up, so did memory, taste, vision, and a small part of the vocalization areas both the Broca AND Wernicke’s areas lit up. That means Sarah here (and he waved an animated finger towards her) triggered imagination, memory, and she both heard the note and sang it. She didn’t use the area to vocalize speech, but the area that excites when you sing a note. “
Sarah drew in a sharp breath. She had sung the note in her head, and kind of hummed it in her throat. She was a trained vocalist, so that made sense. But how did he know it brought up the taste of her mother’s Lentil soup, which always made her feel warm and safe. While the note was played over and over by Harold, she had gone deeper and deeper into kind memories of her Mother, warm soup, and safety.
“Now, Levi, look at your scan. No speech areas activated at all. But look at the visual cortex, the hippocampus, and the small area we think is responsible for executive function. If I am reading this correctly, you, my friend, weren’t listening to the music, but thinking. Thinking , surprisingly of something technical, and that triggered this area here to fire up. And that area, dear Levi, is where we doubt ourselves.”
I have to tell you, my heart almost stopped. I believed, for just a moment, that Harold must be some Master Astrologer, or mind reader, and I am nuts! For what I was thinking, was that in spite of the best teachers, the best equipment, and hours of dedicated practice, I could only technically play the piano. No joy, no sadness, no emotion at all in my playing. I might as well be playing a typewriter. When Harold kept hitting that note, all I could think of was that it was simply a note, one I could play, but not understand. I felt like a failure. In a world of imagination, I had only practicality. “
Harold interrupted my stunned self reverie.
“So, there you see the dilemma. You both heard the same note. We know most of the physical laws and pathways. Yet, both your reactions were unique. Areas not even remotely connected to interpreting sound came into play, plants let out pheromones saying they were safe, and one flower went to “sleep.” So, are we a piano note? A simple Middle C string struck with a soft mallet, causing only the sound to be heard?
Or, are their subharmonics issued by our thoughts to a frequency that we are unaware of and unable to measure?
Why did memory creep in? Self doubt, Imagination? Warm soup in Sarah’s case, and self loathing in yours?
We are more than a Piano Key. But what?”
Sarah and I left. We never wrote the article. But we have visited Harold several times. He has convinced us that we send out our own notes, and some people absorb them, some reflect them, and in some, we trigger safety, self loathing, or lentil soup! The Mechanical view still holds sway over our Intellect, but the Vitalism rules our hearts and minds.
(Hear a Middle C being struck on a well toned piano. See, you didn’t even need the sound! Now, what are your thoughts?”