Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Vibrating Strings form the Music of Creation

Physicists are perpetually searching for a simple and elegant ‘theory of everything.’ Currently, the theories for which we have a preponderance of evidence are the standard theory (which deals with the very small, and of which Quantum Mechanics is a part) and Einstein’s theory of General Relativity (which deals with the very large). However, neither theory can be a theory of everything, since the Standard Model breaks down when attempting to describe gravity, and General Relativity does not describe Quantum Mechanics. Black holes are a good example of why neither General Relativity or Quantum Mechanics are theories of everything, since they fall into both theories’ purviews (black holes are very massive, so they require Special Relativity, but can be very very small, requiring quantum mechanics to describe them), yet neither theory can describe them fully. Thus the need for a more fundamental theory than can describe both gravity and the very small (

One proposed theory to close the gap between Quantum Mechanics and Special Relativity is called ‘String Theory.’ Basically, the fundamental particles we observe are thought to be different ‘notes’ (or excitation modes) on elementary ‘strings.’ String Theory is very elegant mathematically and potentially describe interactions (including gravity) between elementary particles. Unfortunately, these ‘strings’ are extremely small (on the order of 10-33 centimeters) and current technology cannot detect them, leaving this theory untestable by current methods. However, M theory, which is a more fundamental theory that combines string theory with supersymmetry, may be able to be tested by the current Large Hadron Collider at its highest energies. (

How does all of the above complicated physics relate to Tolkien’s creation myth? Firstly, Tolkien himself argued in his “On Fairy Stories,” that in order for a secondary reality to be believable, it needs to have an internal consistency (Lecture, 4/2/14). The internal consistency of the primary reality is evident in the laws of physics: gravity, light, interactions between objects, etc. Tolkien’s Middle Earth obviously follows at least some of the same physical rules that the primary reality does: there is gravity (since people do not float), there is light, air, water, and day and night. More convincingly, Tolkien viewed his histories of Middle Earth as just that: the history of the primary reality (Lecture, 4/21/14). Therefore, the internal consistency of Tolkien’s secondary reality (Middle Earth) needs to at some point meet up with the internal constancy of the primary reality, i.e. the laws of physics. Some facets of the secondary reality’s internal consistency, such as the sun, the moon, stars, and a round world, obviously blend with the primary reality’s physics later and at different points in Tolkien’s timeline, but the most fundamental (potentially) consistency, String Theory, is manifest from the very beginning of Tolkien’s mythology: the Music of Creation.

In Tolkien’s creation story, as in the Catholic creation story, Eru, or God, is the ultimate creator, and thus the source and maker of the rules of inner consistency. In the Silmarillion, Eru declares his rules through a “mighty theme” and instructs the Ainur to “make in harmony together a Great Music” (Ainulindalë, Silmarillion). However, “music” here should not be taken in the literal, human sense of air waves of different frequency vibrating the ear drum. As Flieger argues, the speech, and thus song, of Eru and the Ainur should be interpreted as “preverbal, as some kind of supersenible converse among unbodied spiritual beings.” There are two arguments for this interpretation. The first is Flieger’s: when Tolkien describes the music of creation, he uses similes. “Like unto countless choirs singing with words,” (Ainulindalë, Silmarillion) clearly does not represent an equivalent relation between the music of the Ainur and literal singing. Rather, the use of the similes likely came from the Valar attempting to describe the music of creation to the elves in terms they could understand. The second argument for the Ainurs’ songs to not be composed of sound waves is that during the music, the world has not yet been created and thus the void has not been filled. If one makes the obvious connection between the void and the vacuum of space (as one should in order to unite the internal consistencies between the primary and secondary realities), it can be argued that the Ainur cannot have been literally singing, as there is no sound in space since there is no air to carry sound waves.

If the music of creation is not song in the literal sound sense, then how is this ‘music’ represented? The simplest answer is that while the music of the Ainur is not formed of sound waves, it nevertheless shares many of the same properties, prompting the comparing their music to actual sound. Sound is composed of air waves. Music combines different frequencies of these air waves into patterns. Similarly, the music of the creation should be a pattern of different frequencies, but what exactly is vibrating to create these frequencies? It cannot be light or water, though while both of these are capable of oscillating, neither has been created yet. Perhaps the answer lies in something more fundamental: the strings of string theory.

The Ainur (and mostly likely Eru) have to be formed of something, for Eru created them and they exist, in contrast to the void, which is the absence of things existing. Yet nothing else has been created yet; in primary reality terms, there are no particles. But perhaps the Ainur are formed of strings, the building blocks of elementary particles. The Ainur can then create ‘song’ by vibrating themselves. When several Ainur vibrate together, then can create harmonies. However, before Eru reveals his great theme, there are no rules for the different frequencies to follow, so they cannot yet create anything more. When Eru relates his great theme and has his Ainur sing, that is the moment in which the rules of physics are set, and the ‘strings’ have the potential to sound ‘notes’ that become elementary particles and form atoms and, eventually, molecules. However, the world (or rather, the universe) is not yet created at this point, but when Eru says, “Eä! Let these things Be!” (Ainulindalë, Silmarillion), this is the Big Bang moment posited by the primary reality theories of physics, and the rules that Eru proposed and the Ainur sang are now able to act on the things that Eru caused to exist. The rules found in the music can cause things in the universe to act on their own, as strings form elementary particles, which then form light atoms such as hydrogen, which lead to the creation of stars and then heavier atoms through fusion. The Valar, though, obviously have some extra power to manipulate matter an energy. Perhaps the Valar can manipulate the strings themselves, changing their frequencies and combining them in harmonious ways to create what becomes Middle Earth. If string theory holds up to scientific testing, then perhaps the old idea of “heavenly harmony” is actually present in the primary world, and Tolkien’s Music of Creation is simply a beautiful and imaginative way of looking at the laws of physics.

Alexa L


  1. While it is cool that we can fit things like string theory into Tolkien's creation story, I don't necessarily know how useful such a comparison is. Tolkien obviously did not intentionally create his story to align with string theory or any other modern cosmology, and as a devout Catholic would most likely have not believed in such a beginning of a universe. While it may seem comforting and exciting to draw our favorite author and creator into the world of modern science, this will not help us to increase our understanding of Tolkien himself or his creation. He’s purpose as we have discussed often in class is, “to make visible and physical the effects of sin and misused free will.” His creation story is vital in this purpose, and therefore we should look at it in the religious sense that he intended it to be viewed as. It is a myth, a creation story. It is not meant to be a metaphor for the actual cosmos, and little can be gained, in my opinion, to taking it as such. I do not mean to be harsh, this post was enjoyable to read and beautifully written, however, I just feel like it is avoiding the questions that we have been trying to answer in class.


    1. I completely agree that we should look at Tolkien's religiously-based creation story from the viewpoint of religion. I just happen to not be religious, and if I am going to look at Tolkien's work from the viewpoint of the thing from which I derive the rules I live my life, then I need to look at Tolkien through science.

      Besides, for a creation story, is it really all that different? Astronomers recently found 'smoking gun' evidence for inflation caused by the big bang - the single point in time to which we can trace back the universe around us. Any creation story that has a god create the universe with a word can fit the scientifically described big bang, for scientists have absolutely no idea what happened before the big bang (though there are a lot of different theories). Furthermore, you are incorrect in saying that Tolkien's Catholicism would have prevented him from 'believing' in the Big Bang, as the Vatican (see here:

      As Pope John Paul II said, "Science in itself is good since it is knowledge of the world, which is good, created and regarded by the Creator with satisfaction, as the book of Genesis says: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” I am very attached to the first chapter of Genesis. Original sin has not completely spoilt this original goodness. Human knowledge of the world is a way of participating in the Creator’s knowledge. It is, therefore, a first degree of man’s resemblance to God, an act of respect towards Him, for everything that we discover pays tribute to basic truth."

      While string theory may not have been around during Tolkien's time on this earth, fitting newly-discovered science into Catholic beliefs is something that has been done a lot. String theory is of course not yet an evidence-supported theory, but it is one I believe resonates (pun intended) with Tolkien's reverence for music and its role in the universe.

  2. Dear Alexa L,
    I’m glad to hear at last your reflections on the Ainulindalë and theoretical physics! You draw some very interesting parallels between the Music as a kind of literal-metaphor of the vibrations of strings rather than waves through a medium. This may be more to this than I myself had first recognized.

    However, I think there are two points need from further thought. First, you argue that physics should be a connecting link between the secondary and primary worlds: “Therefore, the internal consistency of Tolkien’s secondary reality (Middle Earth) needs to at some point meet up with the internal constancy of the primary reality, i.e. the laws of physics.” But I wonder if this is so. Does the Silmarillion elsewhere exhibit a concern for internally consistent laws of physics that are similar to our Primary world’s physical laws? How would the (apparent) ‘just-so’ story of the creation of the Sun (Arien) and Moon (Tillion) cohere with our modern physics (Quenta Sil, chap 11)? How would we work out the physics of Ulmo’s island-ferry of the elves to Aman (Quenta Sil, chap 5, first page)? All this to ask: Was Tolkien was indeed concerned make physical sense of his myths?

    Now we don’t have to follow Tolkien in everything. But we should at least be clear where we are parting ways. On this line, my hunch would be that Tolkien would never conceive Eru and the Valar in physical terms, that is, made of some kind of matter (even rarified matter as ‘strings’). As a Catholic, he would mostly likely agree with the ancients and medievals and view them as active spirits. I wonder then, what implications are there for re-imagining the Valar as material entities?

  3. "If string theory holds up to scientific testing, then perhaps the old idea of 'heavenly harmony' is actually present in the primary world"--this, it seems to me, is the crux of your argument. Tolkien seems to have been thinking primarily in terms of the music of the spheres (e.g. as Lewis described in the passage I read in class). The real question is whether the old idea of the music has a basis in modern theories--which I, for one, think would be really cool! RLFB

  4. Although I do not think that string theory itself can be drawn into Tolkien’s legend I certainly think his stories provide for an interpretation of the universe through multiple lenses such as that of physics, and this is because all lores in The Lord of the Rings could be interpreted as a science itself. This can be most clearly seen in the knowledge and inventions of the other races in Middle-earth, who think that their “lore” and “art” is merely a matter of craftsmanship whereas other races see it as “magic.” This is apparent in instances such as the crafts of the elves that hobbits such as Sam think is magic or the art of wizards like Saruman whose lore is most like chemistry, biology, and engineering but what we might call magic. Therefore, I believe that Tolkien would be entirely open to the idea of physics and string theory as a “lore” of Men and the fact that we can use this knowledge to build machines would perhaps be “magic” to other races of Middle-earth. I believe that in any case, all races not only understand elements of the universe differently, but they also interpret the same things about the universe differently as well. Those elements that created the universe might seem like songs to the Elves, but they are science to Men.

  5. Your post demonstrates an interesting scientistic response to Tolkien's creation myth. Myths are commonly thought to be antithetical to scientific knowledge, as the one relies on rational explanations of empirically observed phenomena, while the other relies only on human belief and transmission. Tolkien would probably dispute this dichotomy, inasmuch as he sees myth fading seamlessly into history, and inasmuch as history can be thought of as a science (in the sense of a body of knowledge). But actually, according to the definitions of myth and science that I presented above, string theory would have to be placed in the myth category, since as you noted there is as of yet no empirical evidence to support it. Thus, in a way, the physical sciences also fade seamlessly into myth—any attempt to dispute this by saying that string theory is not really science is just an invocation of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. It is at the very least a theory that is being considered in the present day – whether it eventually goes the way of phlogiston and spontaneous generation does not change the fact that it is a part of the scientific enterprise.
    -Amory K.