Scientist Dr Ian Crawford on Holst's The Planets – An HD Odyssey

If you want music to inspire and educate, then concerts like this one, which matched a performance of Holst's The Planets with Nasa images of the solar system, are the way to go

Music, on its own, can't really enhance your understanding of science. But if you want music to inspire and educate, then concerts like this – which matched the Houston Symphony's performance of Holst's The Planets with Nasa images of the solar system – are the way to go. I suspect that many of the children at the family matinee I went to will be inspired to look more deeply into astronomy. I took my 13-year-old son, Matthew, and even he wasn't as bored as I thought he might be.

Much of Holst's music evokes the grandeur of space. For Jupiter, the largest planet, we have a loud, confident score, matched by footage of turbulent clouds. For Mars, the god of war, Holst's music turns military. Here we saw exploration spacecraft soft-landing on Mars; usually we think of Martians invading us, but here we had earthlings invading Mars.

Holst's Venus suite, however, doesn't correspond with what we now know about the planet. His music is peaceful and soothing, drawing on the idea of Venus as the goddess of love. But Venus is actually uninviting: it has a sweltering carbon dioxide atmosphere and its dreary volcanic surface is at 500C. In those conditions, it's difficult to photograph the planet's surface – so we were shown topographical maps, given false colours to show the mountains and valleys. These are fine for experts like me who know what the maps are – but I wouldn't want people to leave this concert thinking that Venus is actually green, yellow and red.

With Neptune, however, Holst got the tone exactly right. He makes the planet mysterious. This fits well with the fact that we still know so little about Uranus and Neptune. Only one spacecraft has ever been to those two outer planets: Voyager 2, which got to Neptune in 1989, and was only there for a few hours before speeding on by.

Dr Ian Crawford is Reader in Planetary Science at Birkbeck College, University of London. The Planets – An HD Odyssey was at the Barbican, London EC1;


Interview by Laura Barnett

The GuardianTramp

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