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Listen to the EXPLORER Soundtrack, curated by Professor James Dunlop

Listen to the EXPLORER Soundtrack, curated by Professor James Dunlop

ARgENTUM, which uses the symbology of the sun, moon, and stars in its brand manifestation, was delighted to have Professor James Dunlop curate the EXPLORER soundtrack. James is Head of the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh and Principal Investigator of the largest Cycle-1 James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) “Galaxies” program: PRIMER = Public Release IMaging for Extragalactic Research. As an observational cosmologist who uses the world’s largest telescopes to study cosmic history back to the formation and birth of the first stars and galaxies, he, if anyone, deserves the mantle of ‘EXPLORER’.

He was intrigued by the ARgENTUM archetypes and engaged with their energies’ application to his career and soundtrack over a glass or two of Malbec in a salubrious Edinburgh wine bar. Regarding the energy of authenticity, James, a world leader in his field, is rooted in his Scottishness and displays no airs and graces. “Too much effort,” he retorted. As Head of School and part of the University’s senior management team, his leadership style embodies authenticity. “No performative stuff – I don’t make any **** up.” He shoots from the hip and is unafraid to tell the truth. He is known for reducing management meetings to an uneasy silence. It was either a brave or foolhardy consultant who suggested leadership coaching to James! Equally, he’s fair and fully invested in his staff and students, runs an open-door policy, and is always willing to listen and help where possible. He knows his leadership limitations: “I run a ship, not a fleet,” and has opted to pursue his research, supported by the award of a prestigious Royal Society Research Professorship, rather than ascend into the higher echelons of university management. “Integrity is key. If you prostitute yourself too much, there’s nothing left.”

When it comes to the energy of adventure, James is at the helm of one of the biggest intellectual adventures going. He holds – in part sincere and mischievous – that the Physics department is the most important department in any university. “I wanted to make a difference, and it was either Politics or Physics. Physics does the maths, which is relevant. The ramifications of Physics are everywhere around us, but the lead times are long and divorced from politics, which is always looking for short-term solutions. World-transforming outcomes take at least 40 years. Take your phone or your tablet – it’s derived from electro-magnetism, thanks to the genius of Maxwell and, before him, Newton. As soon as Physics comes up with something useful it turns into a new discipline, electronics being a good example. Put bluntly, Physics is akin to magic. Einstein wrote equations that could blow up the whole world.”

He went on to say that the very beginning of the universe is either the most important thing ever or the least important and then announced that “You and me, we’re made up of different chemicals from different galaxies. We are made of stardust from different galaxies. Every day is a miracle, so why worry about the price of gin? As Brian Cox said:” ‘What more do you want?’ He then shared what he thinks is an entertaining and true quote via a text: {You’re a ghost driving a meat-coated skeleton made from stardust, riding a rock, hurtling through space. Fear nothing.}

And so, to some of the music. Is it any wonder that Genesis is his favourite band? “I think Genesis is the greatest band of the 20th Century, and like Bach, who would have been lost to history without Mendelssohn, have almost become lost. With Springsteen or Dylan, I can always guess what comes next. With Genesis, I struggle to understand where they are going, which is a compliment. Tony Banks is one of the few rock keyboard players who came up with harmonic progressions that were not based on Bach. Tony Banks and Bach. I’m exaggerating obviously, but arguably, the rest is noise.”

As to some of that ‘noise’, James rates Billy Bragg as a lyrical genius and is not surprised that the rights of Woody Guthrie’s songs have gone to him. “Bragg is probably the most authentic musician in the UK today.” He loves the Cajun accordion at the end of ‘American Without Tears’. “It is played by Jo-El Sonnier, who is credited with much of the revival of Cajun music. Costello went to the States to make much of this unusual album, with “The Attractions” only joining at the end of the recording sessions. It’s a melancholy and simpler accordion sound I much prefer to the shimmery Scottish dance band instrument.”

Santiago is the fourth and best-known movement of Joby Talbot’s ‘Path of Miracles’ and is modern classical choral music at its haunting best. I think Amelia is Joni Mitchell’s greatest song – so spaced out, weird and wonderful.” And if he had to choose one track? “If forced to choose – ‘Life on Mars’ – arguably the greatest song ever. I love Rick Wakeman’s description of what he said when he got home from doing the piano for Life on Mars – watch the beginning of this little YouTube BBC radio clip (and the rest!).

As a world-leading scientist and Head of School, James also had some interesting things to say about growth. “Science is never a solo effort. It’s collaborative. It’s an evolving subject, and the same idea is often around in different places at the same time, like horizontal currents in the wind. The other thing is that you invariably do your best work before you are 30; this is especially true in mathematical physics. I was the best academic I’ve ever been in my late 20s. The work Peter Higgs did that eventually earned him the Nobel Prize he did in his 20s. You have no commitments like family and all the apparatus at your disposal. Later contributions come through collaboration, the wisdoms of experience like political nous. When I took over as Head of School, my predecessor said, ‘The thing you’ll enjoy is the broadening’. My PhD students are technically better than me. And now there are so many people in the world – there are more people alive than have ever lived. There are going to be some great scientists in that multitude.”

James had a final word to say about his music choices and the importance of lyrics for him: “I think some of the best lyricists manage to do several things in one song – for example, transitioning from an initial broad narrative or political theme but by the end managing to narrow things down to the personal emotions. Among the songs I’ve listed here, Billy Bragg and Elvis Costello are probably the outstanding lyricists, and the two songs are good examples of this sort of elegant general-to-personal transition.” 

And a final word on elegance: “Pure science is very close to art. There’s an elegance. The world is elegant, and theoretical elegance is the main driver in science. When we go for the most elegant solution, it usually turns out to be correct. The Standard Model of Particle Physics, of which the Higgs Boson is the final crucial part, is a relatively simple theory rooted in the beauty of symmetry, and as far as we tell with modern instruments, it is perfectly correct. It’s a mystery: the world is a messy place, but the principles behind it are, for some reason, deeply elegant.”

Listen to James' soundtrack channelling Explorer.