Exoaesthetics

The title of my previous post — “exogeometry” — was a play on the term “exobiology”, or the study of life beyond the planet Earth. Exobiology is, necessarily, a somewhat speculative science, since we humans have not yet really found any life beyond the planet Earth. But, as they say, it never hurts to be prepared.

This evening I had the pleasure of listening to a number of Jazz ensembles, which were all participating in a little Jazz festival here in New York City. I was struck by the wide variety of music that fits under that category “Jazz”. And I found myself wondering, how much of our appreciation of music is determined by the fact that we are human? Nearly all of us are endowed with the natural wind instrument that is the human voice, as well as a sense of hearing attuned to that voice. And our ten biological fingers have, over the course of millenia, steered the development of musical instruments — from the piano to the trumpet — that are quite well suited to be played by human hands.

Even beyond these mere physicalities, my friend Gary Marcus has been studying how our brain has biologically evolved in ways that are well suited to the cultural evolution of what we call music. If you pick up an infant, it will start to kick its legs in a bipedal rhythm, long before it is capable of walking. That 1-2-1-2 rhythm — the most fundamental rhythm in all of our music — is embedded into the very fabric of our cerebellum.

But even beyond music, is our entire notion of aesthetics predicated on the accidents of nature that caused us to be evolved the way we have? This magnificent brain which is our common birthright, how completely does it define the limits and extent of what we call visual art, or drama, or humor?

And beyond even these questions, how much does our human brain influence our ultimate human art form — the purest of all our aesthetic arts — our study of mathematics? Is the beauty of the Pythagorean theorem a feature of the universe we inhabit, or is it actually a a consequence of the way our brains are wired to aesthetically experience that universe?

Would a sentient creature from another star system share our awe and delight at how elegantly Euclid established that the prime numbers go on without bound? Or Canter’s simple and lovely diagonal proof that the numbers between 0 and 1 are uncountably many?

Unlike aesthetic questions in music or the visual arts, our mathematical arts express forms of beauty that go beyond mere accidents of physical biology — or even the laws of physics. And yet, the state of exoaesthetics being what it is, we cannot yet know whether the appreciation of even such pure forms of beauty can exist beyond the human brain.

2 Responses to “Exoaesthetics”

  1. Stephan Ahonen says:

    This makes me wonder, in the event that we ever meet alien life and start beaming prime numbers at them, if they will wonder what the hell we’re trying to say since their mathematical culture doesn’t put as much of a fanatical emphasis on prime numbers as ours does.

  2. admin says:

    Yes, the 1974: Arecibo radio transmitter message was an image on a 23×73 grid (deliberately a product of two prime numbers). When the message arrives in the globular cluster M13 in the year 26,974, its recipients might very well interpret that combination of prime numbers as an obscenity — or a declaration of war.

    Fortunately, you and I will be dead by then. :-)

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