Scientific Musings by Beatlemaniac Richard Bleil
The Beatles’ groundbreaking album Abby Road had a rather dark song called “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. As was status quo for music of the time, and certainly for the Beatles, the lyrics of the song were convoluted and strange, but to a theoretical chemist like myself, they were oddly reminiscent of the quantum revolution. I thought I’d take today’s blog to walk through these lyrics and explain why. Fair warning, though; as I did not have access to these lyrics when this imagery came to me, I did not look the lyrics up for this post. So some of the lyrics may be off, and my interpretation is most likely completely out in left field, but I think it will be fun to think about.
So, the lyrics start:
“Joan was quizzical, studies partiphysical science in home. Late night’s all alone with a test tube, oh, uh oh oh…”
Partiphysical science, in my mind, is the science of subatomic particles; electrons, protons, neutrons. In quantum chemistry, this is precisely the subject of interest (in quantum physics, they look beyond even these particles). So, we’re starting the story with a student, Joan, doing homework in the sciences.
“Maxwell Edison, majoring in medicine, calls her on the phone. ‘Can I take you out to the pictures, Jo-uh-oh-oan?’”
Isn’t that sweet? A nice boy, in a field tangential to science (which is likely how they met) is asking her out on a date. Maybe a little break will help her out.
“But as she’s getting ready to go, a knock comes on the door.”
Rather than taking this literally, maybe the “knock” is realizing that maybe she doesn’t have time to go out, because…
“Bang bang Maxwell’s Silver Hammer comes down upon her head…”
If the thought was in her head, this first line of the chorus makes sense. To further this, Maxwell’s Equations are a set of equations in physics that describe behavior of electric and magnetic fields, and the particles therein. In other words, Maxwell’s Equations are the foundation mathematics of quantum theory, and the thought of these equations came down upon her head, and…
“Bang bang Maxwell’s Silver Hammer made sure that she was dead.”
Yup, her homework is killing her. On to the second verse.
“Back in school again…”
I think of a science teacher in middle or high school here. How does quantum mechanics accepted here?
“Maxwell plays the fool again.”
The start of quantum theory is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which basically says that we are not allowed to know position and velocity simultaneously. Basically, it’s the limit of knowledge. We’re not even allowed to know what the subatomic particles are doing, so Maxwell is playing the fool.
“Teacher gets annoyed, wishing to avoid an unpleasant sce-ee-ee-ene.”
Imagine a science teacher when quantum theory is becoming well-known and just filtering down to their level. Suddenly, the everything the teacher things she knows is wrong. (We’ll see that the Beatles refer to the teacher in the feminine gender in a bit.) Surely, this would be annoying, and she certainly wouldn’t want her students to see her frustration.
“She tells Max to stay when the class has gone away, so he waits behind, writing fifty times I must not be so-uh-oh-ooh.”
So, after class, she has her own homework, trying to make sense of these new laws of nature, and probably writing things down repetitively to try to memorize them.
“But as she turns her back on the boy, he sneaks up from behind. Bang bang Maxwell’s Silver Hammer came down upon her head. Bang bang Maxwell’s Silver Hammer made sure that she was dead.”
She’s trying to understand, but man, Maxwell is beating her in this one. Quantum theory is very challenging, and the only people who really understand it are the ones who realize they will never understand it.
The third verse starts:
“DC 31, Sigmund pulls a dirty one, Maxwell stands alone, painting testimonial pictures, oh, uh oh ooh…”
This strikes me as a court scene. Science, especially new science, must stand up to scrutiny. So, Maxwell, that is to say the new laws of quantum theory, are painting a picture of the subatomic realm, meaning making predictions to the behaviors that are contrary to classical physics, and capable of being tested experimentally.
“Rose and Valery, screaming from the gallery, say ‘he must go free…’”
It’s a new theory, but it has its fans, such as Rose and Valery who apparently believe in it, and, in my interpretation, believe it must be allowed to be further explored.
“The Judge does not agree and he tells them so, uh oh oh.”
There were many people who couldn’t bring themselves to believe in this new theory. In the ‘90’s, I sat in a seminar at Harvard with a physicist who claimed that he could prove that classical physics laws can predict everything that quantum theory is, provided you included enough unjustifiable arbitrary components.
“But as the words are leaving his lips, a voice comes from behind. Bang bang Maxwell’s Silver hammer comes down upon his head…bang bang Maxwell’s Silver Hammer made sure that he was dead.”
The interesting thing about quantum theory is that everything that it predicts that can be tested, has been tested, and quantum theory has proven to be annoyingly accurate. Any doubters were simply wiped away by…
Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.