The unbearable mathematical lightness of David Bowie

By on 14/07/2018

If you thought you saw all the possible combinations of something with mathematics, you were wrong. Elisabetta Strickland proposes in fact in this article an extraordinary one: David Bowie and mathematics. A post to hear, enriched by the magnificent portraits by Paola Celletti.

It is well known that David Bowie, a multifaceted rock icon in both music and life, had a tendency to assume fictitious personalities to the point of being nicknamed “The Chameleon”. But only recently, say after his death in 2016, we noticed an initially underestimated side of his personality, that is an attraction for mathematics, in particular for geometry and algebra, which if you really pay attention, also transpires from his outfits and his compositions. His most famous work in this sense is the famous song “Space Oddity”, one of the most beautiful written by him, whose title is inspired by the film “A Space Odyssey” by Stanley Kubrik. In order to sing it in public, he had a costume made in which symmetry and geometric loci reigned, so as to make it look like a human ruled surface, which he loved to enhance with contrasts of color. His primary purpose, by his own admission, was to underline his dreamy and spatial atmospheres, which actually exorcised a sense of loneliness and alienation of which he claimed to suffer.

foto © Photo by Sukita, Watch That Man III, 1973rca

In short, the space seemed to represent a great source of interest for Ziggy Stardust, or rather the White Duke, just to mention some of his secondary identities, without prejudice to the fact that at the registry office he was David Robert Jones. Also in the song “Life on Mars?” And in the album “The rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, his attraction for science stood out in an almost dreamlike way, so much that the suggestions created by him represented one of the highest moments of the English artist’s music. His passion for geometry was noticed especially by the Japanese photographer Masayoshi Sukita, who in 1973 portrayed him with one of his most beautiful stage clothes, a true hymn to symmetry, see here.

Gallery: Portraits of David Bowie, from the series “In memory of my beloved David” by Paola Celletti (click on the figures to enlarge them).


On the wave of these mathematical whims hidden in the music of the great artist, other idols of rock competed in atypical interpretations of various scientific truths, based on the fact that in philosophy, in religion, in ethics, in their opinion there were handholds for an alternative interpretation. Thus, for example, one can observe that the cardinality of one of the artistically most relevant rock groups since the Beatles is 5, perhaps even jeopardizing the truth that 2 + 2 = 4 and arriving to assert that 2 + 2 = 5. Who was this upsetting statement due to? To the Radiohead group, five former schoolmates with knowledge ranging from English literature to fine arts, to economy, capable of absorbing any kind of suggestion, up to digest it and transform it into sound and ideas. In 2007, the Radiohead put their latest album “In rainbows” on the internet at a price chosen by the buyer, that is also free: in October 2008 they claimed to have sold three million copies of the CD, just to let you understand their way of doing things. Drawing from any field of human knowledge and following the great Bowie, Radiohead also exploits comminglings with science, technology, history, art, politics and literature. Just from the literature, precisely from “1984” of George Orwell, the 2 + 2 = 5 arises, becoming the surrender to a mechanism which allows to believe with genuine conviction in an idea and in its exact opposite, forgetting from time to time the very existence of the contrary.

Here’s what the song said:

Are you such a dreamer
To put the world to rights?
I’ll stay home forever
Where two and two always makes a five.
I’ll lay down the tracks
Sandbag and hide
January has April showers
And two and two always makes a five

An interesting interpretation of the musical art of David Bowie is due to the Italian architect and graphic designer Federico Babina, who believed that music and mathematics were united by a cosmic connection, in the sense that both are generated by an underlying code, an order revealed mostly by geometry. Babina has proposed a series of illustrations dedicated to the world of music, see this article, in which dominates the one dedicated to Bowie, based on one of the symbols of the histrionic songwriter and composer, the lightning painted on his face on the cover of the album”Aladdin Sane “, in which echoes the song” Space Oddity “released in July 1969. The song became among other things the theme of the BBC for the moon landing report of Apollo 11. The synestesia between the arts, science and the cosmic connection mentioned by Babina is the same that showed Bowie with his music, an all-round experience, which involves all the senses, developing its own way of being in the world and expressing itself, experiencing everything and transcending the musical and aesthetic genres: a living work of art.

Finally, it seems right to inform you that to highlight the peculiar scientific magic of the production of the English artist, the Museum of Sciences in Boston is largely contributing during this period, organizing for the next August 3 at the Planetarium Charles Hayden a show entitled “The David Bowie Experience“, in which cutting-edge technology is used to blend his legendary music with an extraordinary video, creating a sensory journey in which innovation, art and imagination mark the beginning of a new future for music, that Ziggy Stardust had foretold almost fifty years ago.

Elisabetta Strickland

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