Grooving in Infinite Dimensions


The Unlikely Journey of Musician Max Born, from Fellini to Folk Songs, Including Recollections of his Famous Nobel-Prize-winning Grandfather

Clockwise: Max Russell Born in the recording studio of his good friend Hay Zeelen, an international authority in music mastering who produced, mixed and mastered Strange Times, and his new solo material (from his Facebook page), his 1969 performance as the Roman slave boy Giton in Fellini’s Satyricon, and a portrait of his esteemed grandfather Max Born, 1954 Nobel Laureate in Physics

In sunny Mallorca, Spain a gifted singer-songwriter, with a proclivity toward eastern philosophy (Buddhism) and alternative medicine (yoga, natural remedies), pens clever lyrics about quantum physics and relativity, among other topics. His topical albums, such as “Strange Times,” display abundant talent and imagination.

Strange Times, a recent solo album by Max Born

And the crafter of quantum verse is well-positioned to do so. Max Russell Born, the musician and former actor (starring in Fellini’s 1969 surrealist film Satyricon), happens to be one of the grandsons of Prof. Max Born, the eminent physicist and coiner of the term “quantum mechanics.”

Prof. Max Born, the quantum physicist, with Gustav Born, who would become a pharmacologist and physician

Music runs in the family. Max’s father, Dr. Gustav “Gus” Born, the son of Prof. Born the quantum physicist, played piano and flute. Max’s sister, Dr. Georgina “Georgie” Born, was a member of several alternative bands, including Henry Cow and the Feminist Improvising Group, before becoming Professor of Sociology, Anthropology and Music at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge University, and later Professor of Music and Anthropology at Oxford.

Georgina “Georgie” Born, a former member of several alternative rock bands, including Henry Cow and the Feminist Improvising Group, is currently Professor of Music and Anthropology at Oxford University.

Olivia Newton-John, Max’s first cousin, and one of the quantum physicist’s granddaughters, is a famous singer, noted for her performances in the musicals Grease and Xanadu, as well as for a string of hit pop tunes, such as “Physical.”

Olivia Newton-John’s hit song Physical
Olivia Newton-John with Dr. Gustav Born at a ceremony honoring quantum physicist Max Born

The Born family has German-Jewish origins. Prof. Max Born founded quantum mechanics and encouraged the young Werner Heisenberg to pursue his own groundbreaking work along those lines during the mid-1920s at the University of Göttingen, Germany in the mid-1920s. Born’s concept of reformulating physics away from the physically measurable Newtonian mechanics to more abstract quantum laws was truly revolutionary. The ‘Born rule’ mapped direct physical relationships, such as momentum equals mass times change of position over time, into indirect, probabilistic connections involving intermediaries called “wave functions,” derived from the work of Erwin Schrödinger. Hence momentum and position were no longer directly connected in such a way that both might be known simultaneously, a principle Heisenberg refined into the uncertainty principle. Albert Einstein, who was a strict determinist, was disturbed by such developments, writing to Born in December 1926:

„Die Quantenmechanik ist sehr achtunggebietend. Aber eine innere Stimme sagt mir, daß das noch nicht der wahre Jakob ist. Die Theorie liefert viel, aber dem Geheimnis des Alten bringt sie uns kaum näher. Jedenfalls bin ich überzeugt, daß der nicht würfelt.“

“Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the ‘Old One.’ I, at any rate, am convinced that He is not playing dice.”

Prof. Born was resolutely secular, and found Einstein’s idea of a divine entity setting ironclad rules for a clockwork universe deeply troubling. Rather, he resolutely believed in individual free will. Randomness and indeterminacy, he thought, was a good thing, not a glitch in a theory. His wife Hedwig “Hedi” Ehrenberg Born was a fiery spirit herself, and agreed with him in his intellectual battles with Einstein. Personally, though, Einstein and the Borns were close friends.

Letter from Hitler to Prof. Max Born acknowledging his dismissal and (ironically) thanking him for his service.

In 1933, following the rise of Hitler in Germany, the Nazis introduced an antisemitic law that barred faculty of Jewish heritage (with some exceptions at first) from holding academic positions. Born was placed on leave, and later dismissed. He and his family, including their children Irene, Gritli, and Gustav, moved to the United Kingdom, where he took up a two year position at Cambridge, and then a full-time position at the University of Edinburgh. He would remain in the UK for two decades, returning to Germany in the mid-1950s, around the time he received the Nobel Prize in Physics.

The Born family in 1933

During World War II, Gustav served the British forces as a physician. In August 1945, he was stationed in Japan during time of the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima. Consequently, he treated survivors of the bombing, some of whom had bleeding disorders. That experience led him to groundbreaking work in the studies of blood conditions related to platelets. He married psychoanalyst Ann Plowden-Wardlaw. That marriage, which would end in divorce, produced three children: Max, Georgina, and Sebastian.

Today, Max Russell Born enjoys making music, performing with guitar and vocals, and has recorded a number of songs and several albums. That passion dates back to his boyhood. I’m privileged to have had the opportunity to interview him by phone.

INTERVIEW WITH MAX BORN

Paul Halpern: It seems like, from your profile, that you’ve been interested in music since you were a child, is that right?

Max Born: Yeah, sure. My father played classical music; he played piano and flute. He wanted to be a musician, but his father, the scientist, said, “you can’t make a living,” as so many parents do. [When World War II began] he went into medicine so that he wouldn’t have to fight. [With the army] he was then sent to Hiroshima in Japan. After they dropped the bomb, he saw with his own eyes what that was like — people dying of radiation sickness. He told us some 60 years later.

Quantum physicist Max Born in his later years

PH: Do you remember your grandfather [the quantum physicist] getting the Nobel Prize in 1954, when you were three years old?

MB: No, but I remember him because we used to drive over to Germany to see him when I was a kid. And then I didn’t see him for a long time. But one time my father said, in 1970 [when the elder Max Born was very ill], I’ll pay your train ticket if you want to go and see him. I took the train to Germany and saw him in his hospital bed. I knew he was dying and that he wanted to go back to his house to die, so I felt sorry for him. He was sitting up in his bed. I stood in front of it and starting telling him about me — that I’m interested in consciousness, psychedelics, spirituality, and astrology. He was interested but didn’t say much; he smiled at me.

I wanted to ask him something but I thought, do I dare ask him? I didn’t want to traumatize him. But in the end I thought, he had a big mind. I said, “you are about to leave this; you are about to die. Do you think there is anything else?” He didn’t freak out. He just smiled at me.

They asked me if I wanted to stay until tomorrow. But I said I wanted to go home. So I said goodbye to him and came back to London.

Something like 2 or 3 months later [after the elder Born died], just for a laugh, I went to see a psychic. She said to me, “I see an old man with white hair.” And I’m thinking, white hair? My oldest friends were 28. I was really puzzled. She said “you know who I’m talking about.” I said “are you talking about my grandfather?” Without missing a beat she said “he just wants to wish you a Happy Birthday.” [It happened to be young Max’s birthday that day.] I thought, bloody hell, I only asked him the question [about whether or not there is an afterlife], and he answered me!

Bob Dylan, an influence on Max Born’s music
Image of a typical London scene in the 1960s (stock photo)

Max described how he dropped out of school, ran away from home, and lived in central London, where he began to experiment with psychedelics. Musically, he was influenced at the time by Bob Dylan, whose famous 1966 concert at the Royal Albert Hall he attended. In 1968 he met the acclaimed Italian director Federico Fellini, who was scouting for an attractive boy to cast in the surrealistic film Satyricon. Based on fragments by Petronius, that film examined the decadence of ancient Rome in a revolutionary, otherworldly fashion./media/f40870a932325a97ce8e3706c13a4dcaA clip from “Ciao, Federico” in which young Max Born, dressed for his role as Giton in Satyricon, sings the Bob Dylan song, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”

Poster of Fellini’s Satyricon
Scenes from Satyricon, with Max Born as Giton

PH: How do you look back on the film Satyricon and its depiction of hedonism?

MB: I had a great mental connection with Fellini. We became good friends. When I first met him in London he said it was going to be a science fiction film. I knew it was a film based on a book from ancient Rome, so didn’t know what he meant. But later on it dawned on me. Fellini broke the mould of all historical films so far. What he meant by science fiction was that he told he designers “I don’t want Roman design.” He told the music people, “I want you you to make stuff up.” He wanted it to be an alien culture, and he succeeded. And he did it well before CGI, with just cardboard, plywood, and paint. It’s such a visual feast. You can’t get bored. “Max,” he said, “this film is about how the Roman Empire came to be decadent, losing its way, and fell into pieces. And that’s what’s happening in the Western World.” We saw it back then. Now it’s reached a crescendo.

About a year after the film was released, Max decided to spent time in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery situated in Scotland, where he learned how to meditate. The experience help lend him greater balance in his life. That set him on the road to learning more about natural healing. While he continued to sing and play the guitar, he didn’t start writing music until about 20 years ago, when he moved to Spain and got married. There’s more to the interview, which I hope to convey in a future post, but perhaps its time to stop and take in some of Max’s music. Let’s start with some songs he wrote recently about modern physics.

A SAMPLING OF THE MUSIC OF MAX BORN

QUANTUM BLUES by Max Born

It all comes out of nothing
 With energy to burn
 All this stuff and nonsense
 Whichever way you turn
 Bursting into being
 With no good reason why
 Dancing on the ceiling
 In the corner of your eye

And it makes you an offer
 You can’t reasonably refuse
 I believe I´ve got them old
 Quantum blues

At the subatomic level
 You wonder what they´re smoking
 When things get really small
 The rules they all get broken
 What had once seemed solid
 Seems to vanish in thin air
 Leaving you to wonder
 If it was ever really there

It´s enough to leave a man
 Dazed and confused
 I believe I´ve got them old
 Quantum blues

Now nothing is for certain
 Said old Werner Heisenberg
 And this is a solid fact
 So the whole thing´s quite absurd
 You can know where something is
 Or else how fast it´s going
 But both you cannot know at once
 There is no way of knowing

If you look at this too closely
 You´ll surely blow a fuse
 I believe I´ve got them old 
 Quantum blues

When two lonely particles
 Have once shared their heart
 They stay in touch forever
 Though a universe apart
 Once they make a connection
 And here´s the big surprise
 Once they´ve been entangled
 Their love never dies

And on this ship of fools
 We´ve all signed up for the cruise
 I believe I´ve got them old
 Quantum blues

My woman says I´m crazy
 To worry about this stuff
 She says come back to bed man
 She says enough´s enough
 But I jumped down the rabbit hole
 And I never will return
 I know I should have listened
 But I never learn

And that look upon her face
 Says we are not amused
 I believe I´ve got them old
 Quantum blues.

FOURTH DIMENSION ( Should really be fifth… ) by Max Born

I´m living in the Fourth Dimension
Don´t have no stress — don´t feel no tension
Come and join me — when you´re ready
Material life — can be so heavy

E = MC squared — Yeah E = MC squared
You are energy, baby — don´t be scared
Of E = MC squared — yeah E = MC squared

I´m grooving in the Fourth Dimension
Eternal life — is the thing in question
I´m drinking from — that loving cup
So pay your dues — and come on up

E = MC squared — Yeah E = MC squared
You could be free — but you never dared
Face E = MC squared — yeah E = MC squared

I´m hanging out — in the Fourth Dimension
All my beliefs — are in suspension
Don´t need no evidence — don´t need no persuasion
Just feel the truth of that old equation

E = MC squared — Yeah E = MC squared
Even old Einstein wasn´t prepared
For E = MC squared — yeah E = MC squared

God throws the dice — he don´t control them
Kisses them for luck — then he rolls them
And he screams out loud — for the hearing impaired
Energy is Matter times the Speed of Light Squared

E = MC squared — Yeah E = MC squared
There´s nothing but energy — baby don´t be scared
Of E = MC squared — E = MC squared
E = MC squared — E = MC squared
I´ll say it again for the hearing impaired
Yeah E = MC squared…
(Fade out…)

IN THE ZONE, by Max Born

There it is again — eleven eleven
Checked my phone — it´s a sign from heaven
Timing is everything
Let it be known — I´m in the groove — I´m in the zone

Sold my euros — on a hunch
Bought some roubles — went to lunch
Next day the euro was toast
I work alone — I´m in the groove — I´m in the zone

I missed my plane — stuck on the ground
An hour later — the plane goes down
The flight I missed by seconds
The bird had flown — I´m in the groove — I´m in the zone

As I thought of you — far away across the sea
You rang my doorbell — synchronicity
It´s all beyond explanation
My mind was blown — I´m in the groove — I´m in the zone

Some call it fate — some call it luck
Some just say — what the f_ck
I just keep on trucking
Like a Rolling Stone — I´m in the groove — I´m in the zone

Let it be known — I´m in the groove — I´m in the zone/media/6c03119bf64417cf8b36df86bd0aa89d


Facebook: “Locked Down Inna Babylon,” by Max Born

Purchase Strange Times by Max Born on Apple Music

The author is very grateful to Max Born for taking the time to be interviewed by phone on July 11, 2020.

Published by Paul Halpern

Physicist and Science Writer. Author of sixteen books, most recently Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect

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