Brian Eno Plays the Universe

Everyone had his or her favorite drink in hand. There were bubbles and deep reds, and the sound of ice clinking in cocktail glasses underlay the hum of contented chatter. Gracing the room were women with long hair and men dressed in black suits, with glints of gold necklaces and cuff links. But it was no Gatsby affair. It was the annual Imperial College quantum gravity cocktail hour. Like the other eager postdocs, this informal meeting was an opportunity to mingle with some of the top researchers in quantum gravity and hopefully ignite a collaboration, with a drink to sooth our nerves. But for me this party would provide a chance encounter that encouraged me to connect music with the physics of the early universe.

The host was dressed down in black from head to toe—black turtleneck, jeans, and trench coat. On my first day as a postdoctoral student at Imperial College, I had spotted him at the end of a long hallway in the theoretical physics wing of Blackett Lab. With jet-black wild hair, beard, and glasses, he definitely stood out. I said, “Hi,” as he walked by, curious who he was, and with his “How’s it going?” response, I had him pegged. “You from New York?” I asked. He was.

TIME IS RELATIVE: Eno’s blip in time with Roxy Music (seen here in 1972) will live forever in rock history—a fitting fact for a composer interested in spacetime and relativity, whose music explores the structure of the universe.Michael Putland / Getty Images

My new friend was Lee Smolin, one of the fathers of a theory known as loop quantum gravity, and he was in town considering

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