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When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11

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When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11

Or How to Explain Quantum Physics with Heavy Metal


15 min read
7 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

In the weird world of molecules, atoms and waves, heavy metal meets quantum mechanics. You may never be the same.

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College physics students often wear heavy metal T-shirts featuring Metallica or Iron Maiden. The geeky technical aspects of physics map to heavy metal – those who find one appealing often embrace the other. Physicist and amateur rocker Philip Moriarty’s wonderfully illustrated use of the metal music genre to explain a concept opaque to non-physicists will resonate with metal-loving mathematicians and curious physicists who love Judas Priest. It will also interest students who wonder if they have an affinity for physics.


Deep and fundamental links connect all music – but especially metal – to quantum physics.

Heavy metal music suffers an unfair reputation as brutish and unsophisticated noise. But bands like Opeth, Mastodon and Dream Theater, for example, create complex, elegant and surprisingly mathematical music.

An electric guitar’s oscillations create sine waves. Quantum physics studies waves like these, and examines how they form and interact. From helping to explain the uncertainty principle to providing insight into the behavior of crowds, metal music links to quantum mechanics. The complex, intellectual music of Rush may exemplify this best, particularly on its science fiction album 2112.

A guitar riff produces longitudinal waves. Energy travels with the waves. It also generates transverse waves that slam into the energy flow. These collisions create the jarring sounds of metal music. The higher the pitch, the greater the number of cycles a guitar’s sound waves create per second. Low notes have longer waves. 

To understand these dynamics, physicists and mathematicians use Fourier analysis. An equalizer, for example, lets you change the frequencies...

About the Author

Philip Moriarty teaches quantum physics at the University of Nottingham and jams in a heavy metal garage band.

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