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Music and the Making of Modern Science$
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Peter Pesic

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780262027274

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262027274.001.0001

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Tuning the Atoms

Tuning the Atoms

Chapter:
(p.245) 16 Tuning the Atoms
Source:
Music and the Making of Modern Science
Author(s):

Peter Pesic

Publisher:
The MIT Press
DOI:10.7551/mitpress/9780262027274.003.0017

During the nineteenth century, the study of spectra brought the music of the spheres to the atomic level. Anders Jonas Ångstrom’s initial treatment of the bright spectral lines of hydrogen relied on Leonhard Euler’s theory of resonance oscillations. This chapter explores the acoustical underpinnings of G. Johnstone Stoney and Johann Balmer’s search for the order in elemental spectra. Stoney used the musical analogy of atomic vibrations to explain spectral lines as “overtones,” comparing the fundamental vibration of hydrogen to a violin string. Though sometimes depicted as having guessed his formula for the spectral lines of hydrogen, Balmer explained it in terms of overtones from which he deduced their fundamental tone and then explained recently discovered spectral lines in hot white stars. In his later writings, Balmer omitted the explanatory material about the theory of overtones, seemingly in accord with Edmund Husserl’s concept of sedimentation, but which this book contests: earlier strata (such as musical presuppositions) will not always remain sedimented but can emerge into view. Throughout the book where various sound examples are referenced, please see http://mitpress.mit.edu/musicandmodernscience (please note that the sound examples should be viewed in Chrome or Safari Web browsers).

Keywords:   Atomic spectra, Anders Jonas Ångstrom, Musical analogy, Overtones, Hydrogen, G. Johnstone Stoney, Johann Balmer, Edmund Husserl, Sedimentation of meaning

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