TOWNSEND -- There is little doubt that music is one of the most powerful tools for changing brain chemistry; it can make you euphoric, and it can give you the blues.
But on Thursday, March 6, at 7 p.m., chemistry and the blues come together in a unique pairing of a blues guitar-playing UCLA chemistry professor and a former special-education teacher turned blues guitarist.
The event, titled "Elements of the Blues," will take place in the North Middlesex Regional High School auditorium, and will feature UCLA chemistry professor Dr. Eric Scerri and W.C. Handy Blues Award winner Ronnie Earl.
This unusual pairing was the brainchild of Earl's wife, NMRHS chemistry teacher Donna Horvath.
"I have been teaching chemistry for several years now," said Horvath in a recent interview, "and I have observed that some kids like some parts of it and not others. But they seem to have an affinity with the periodic table. Even the least interested students seem to form an attachment to it."
Horvath said that she had read Scerri's June 2013 "Scientific American" article "Cracks in the Periodic Table," which discusses a possible new staircase form of the periodic table of the elements.
The staircase on the right side of the periodic table is a dividing line between metals and nonmetals. Scerri's article addresses the fact that some recent additions to the table may differ in their chemistry from the other elements in the same column, thus breaking the periodic rule that had defined the table for the past 150 years.
"I just really love the article, because we talk about the new elements and we are starting a new row now" in class, Horvath said.
A brief biography accompanying the article states that Scerri is not only a historian and philosopher of chemistry at UCLA, but also that he is a serious blues guitarist.
"I read his bio and wondered if I could make a personal connection with him and use my husband," Horvath revealed.
She contacted Scerri and told him how she would use his article in her class, and asked if he would consider making a trip to the east coast.
"He said that he would and that his wife would love to visit Boston," she said.
Horvath's husband was born Ronald Horvath in Queens, New York, a first-generation American of Hungarian Jewish parents.
Earl eventually moved to Boston to pursue a degree in Special Education at Boston University, but also took an interest in guitar.
This, said Horvath, despite an early report card of Earl's that stated that he had no aptitude in music.
"He took piano as a child, but it was when he saw the Beatles that he knew he wanted to play guitar," Horvath said.
"He thought it was so cool to play the guitar, but his parents wanted him to have a respectable career. Then, he went to a concert and heard B.B. King and Freddie King, and it really resonated with him."
He eventually joined Roomful of Blues, and later formed the band Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters. He has played with Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and many other blues greats, and has released nearly 30 albums during his 30-plus years as a professional musician.
Still, in between gigs, Earl enjoys coming to her school to talk with her students, Horvath said. "He talks about what it means to be an artist and create music. Students may have a real passion for music, but that may not be their avocation. Ronnie talks with them about how people can blend their avocations with their jobs."
Scerri, she discovered, chose to teach at UCLA because he wanted music in his life. "And Ronnie had to make a choice, too. He gave up his job (teaching special education) to spend more time on music."
In a recent coast-to-coast phone interview, Scerri said that he is delighted by the way the upcoming program has come together.
"I have known of his playing for many years," he said of Earl, "and I cannot wait to jam with him."
And just what does music have to do with the periodic table of the elements?
"The history of the periodic table, the topic that I have published three books on, has featured a curious incident involving chemistry and music," Scerri replied.
"The London chemist, John Newlands, first proposed his law of octaves in the 1860s, and made an analogy with musical octaves whereby notes repeat after a certain interval just as elements seem to in the periodic table. When he presented this idea he was mocked by London's leading chemists," Scerri went on. "But the analogy is essentially correct!"
"The periodic table is an arrangement of all the elements?the fundamental building blocks of nature. They are all very different and have characteristic properties, yet there is this underlying system that gathers them all together and makes sense of them."
Scerri said that during the program at the high school, he is mainly going to speak about the periodic table, but will also try to make a connection with music.
Besides the law of octaves, which found that each element was similar to the element eight places further on, there is a moving from the Bohr model of the atom to one of quantum mechanics known as the Schrödinger equation, which draws an analogy between physics and music, Scerri added.
Put forward by Erwin Schrödinger, this partial differential equation describes how the quantum state of some physical system changes with time.
"In order to understand that conceptual change," said Scerri, "I use the guitar and show how when you lightly touch the strings you can produce a harmonic."
When a string is fixed at both ends, it makes an open string. If you touch the string lightly on the twelfth fret and strum it, you get a harmonic, he said.
"By breaking up the string into halves, thirds, quarters, or fifths, it's a perfect analogy to the Schrödingerapproach to quantum mechanics," Scerri explained. "You just apply the math given those boundary conditions."
And the Blues?
"I absolutely love the blues. It's one of the reasons I moved to the states from England. During the '60s and '70s blues revival, the kids in England started listening to Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and The Rolling Stones, and then started listening to American blues when Americans were not listening to the blues. The Americans were listening to the British musicians, strangely," Scerri reminisced.
"For me, although I discovered blues in London, the British lost interest but the Americans retained it. That's one of the reasons I wanted to be in America. (The American blues) were not sophisticated; the expression is the sophistication," he said.
"The Elements of the Blues" will be held in the NMRHS auditorium, located at 19 Main Street, Townsend, from 7-9 p.m. on Thursday, March 6, with a snow date of Friday, March 7. It is free and open to the public, and the auditorium is wheelchair accessible.
For more information, contact Dr. Horvath at 978-587-8721, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The program is supported, in part, by a grant from the local Cultural Councils of Ashby, Pepperell, and Townsend, and from the Amanda Dwight Entertainment Committee of Townsend, local agencies that are supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency.