Science inspires art and art inspires science. It is unfortunate that our society considers science and art to be at opposition, rather than equal parts in the complex experience that it is to be human. Einstein played the violin, Queen guitarist Brian May has a PhD in astrophysics, Brian Cox was a keyboard player before becoming a particle physicist, and Richard Feynman played several instruments with conspicuous enthusiasm. If you took the greatest scientists in history and stuck them in a room together, they would be just as likely to form a rock band as a new scientific theory.
Science and technology have inspired songs and song lyrics, but they have also inspired album covers, some of them iconic. Here are some of my favourite science-inspired album covers.
Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon
One of the most famous and recognizable album covers of all time is Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (1973). The cover shows a beam of white light being split into a rainbow of colours by a prism, a common demonstration used in optical physics. The band chose it because it represents the album’s lyrics and themes of mental illness, was reminiscent of their stage lighting, and was simple and bold.
Unusually, the album art depicts the beam of white light being broken into six colours, rather than the traditional seven, a decision that resonates with many physicists who object to Isaac Newton shoe-horning in indigo just because he wanted the spectrum to have seven colours. The back side of the album also features a second prism recombining the colours into white light again, something that is possible to do, but with the addition of a focussing lens.
Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures
The cover of Unknown Pleasures (1979) by Joy Division is another iconic album cover that is striking in its simplicity. The white-on-black image shows a plot of successive pulses of radio energy from pulsar PSR B1919+21 (or CP 1919 as it was catalogued back then) taken from The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy. B1919 was the first known pulsar, the radio signature of a rapidly spinning, super-dense remnant of a dead star. It was discovered by Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish in 1967 and was briefly, jokingly, named LGM-1 (Little Green Men 1).
The plot was constructed by radio astronomer Harold Craft at the Arecibo Observatory for his 1970 PhD thesis. The intensity and timing of each successive pulse of radio energy from the pulsar is overlapped in such a way that it allows the astronomer to see how the radio pulses are changing over time. While we know a lot more about pulsars now than we did in 1970, we are still not certain exactly what causes these changes in the intensity of the pulse.
Somehow, I doubt any of the plots I made for my PhD thesis will wind up on an album cover. That is, unless I start my own band…
Honourable mention – Joy Division Transmission
Joy Division’s Transmission single gets an honourable mention because it features an image of the Orion Nebula, the closest star-forming region to Earth.
Muse: The 2nd Law
The title of Muse’s The 2nd Law (2012) directly references the second law of thermodynamics, that the entropy of an isolated system always increases. This law is why your coffee goes cold, glass shatters when you drop it, and why it is impossible to create a perpetual motion machine. The second law is quoted and explained on the album in the track Unsustainable. The cover art shows a map of the pathways in a human brain taken from the Human Connectome Project, a multi-million dollar project to help us understand the anatomical and functional connectivity within the brain, and to aid research into brain disorders.
The Strokes: Is This It
The first release of The Strokes’ album Is This It (2001) featured a photograph of a nude woman’s bottom and hip, with a black-gloved hand resting on it suggestively, and has been acclaimed as one of the greatest album covers of all time. However, for the American release of the album a few months later, the band decided to replace the woman’s butt with a psychedelic photograph off the tracks left by subatomic particles in a bubble chamber.
Bubble chambers are an old technology used to study subatomic particles. A chamber was filled with liquid hydrogen. As a charged particle, either from natural radioactivity or a particle collider, passed through the liquid hydrogen, it caused the hydrogen around it to boil, leaving a trail of bubbles in its wake. The bubbles were then photographed and studied to determine what kind of particles had passed through.
The Strokes’ cover image is an artistically enhanced photo from the imaginatively named Big European Bubble Chamber. The tight spirals are electrons, while the straighter tracks are from heavier particles such as muons and protons. Bubble chambers were used in nuclear and particle physics research through several decades of the 20th century, but have been replaced by modern wire chambers.
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The bubble chamber photograph also appears on Prince’s 1990 album Graffiti Bridge.