Bringing chemistry to music

Shortly after receiving tenure more than a decade ago, Northeastern University professor David Budil was teaching Schrödinger’s wave equation to a class of physical chemistry students. To explain the concept that a higher harmonic of a fundamental wave corresponds to a particle of higher energy, Budil used the analogy of waves produced by a musical instrument.

“You put more energy into the instrument by blowing harder in a wind instrument or moving your bow faster” on a string instrument. This gives a sound with a higher frequency, he said. When he moved his hand to indicate this, a student named Andrea, who was also a string player, realized he knew how to handle a bow.

Budil, now associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology and associate dean for research in the College of Science, shelved his viola seven years earlier when he became a father, a homeowner and a professor all in the span of two weeks. After the Schrödinger class, Andrea brought music to every lecture until he finally agreed to join her in the Newton Symphony Orchestra in 2001.

Joining the NSO recommenced a life-long interest for Budil, who had participated in several academic and professional orchestras throughout his career, including the Yale Symphony Orchestra and the University of Chicago Orchestra, with which he played while earning his PhD.

As a post-doc at Cornell, Budil participated in a string quartet entirely populated by other scientists and mathematicians. “You have to think in a sort of mathematical way to approach a musical phrase,” he says, offering a plausible reason for why so many scientists double as musicians.

Since joining the NSO, Budil has encountered several other musical scientists. A former stand partner, for example, worked at a local biotech company, which later employed Northeastern co-op students. In Boston’s Mercury Orchestra, Budil met Richard West, who is now an assistant professor of chemical engineering in the College of Engineering.

His current stand partner in the New Philharmonia Orchestra, in Newton, Mass., teaches mathematics at UMass-Boston and works at Symmetric Computing, a company that is helping to develop supercomputers for the $168 million Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, a nine-acre facility in Holyoke, Mass. Northeastern is one of five university partners in the new center, which aims to use super computers with lower energy consumption to analyze complex scientific problems, such as the evolution of the galaxy.

In November, Budil participated in his first “flash mob,” during which members of the Longwood Symphony Orchestra performed Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in the new patient facility at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “I felt very appreciated,” he says.

In March, Budil will have an opportunity to play with the LSO after sitting on its waiting list for several months. The LSO is nationally renowned for its scientifically minded membership of medical and biomedical researchers from the Longwood area.

Performances benefit disease research, a mission Budil is excited to be a part of. As he put it, “It’s a nice overlap of music and the sciences.”