Every day for several years, James Webb would clock out at the General Motors factory in Anderson, Indiana, and sink into his fire-engine red 1964 Ford Galaxie. He’d wind the convertible along country roads during the 45 minutes to Ball State, switching out eight-track tapes of the Beatles and Yes on the way.
As much as the physics major enjoyed popular music, he said he longed for tunes with scientific content and more thoughtful lyrics. A little more than a decade after his 1980 graduation, Webb started taking guitar lessons and began writing poems and songs about galaxies and relativity. A few years ago, the singer-songwriter who now teaches physics filled a black hole in the music industry, producing what he calls the world’s first CD of “astronomical rock.”
“Reaching for the Stars: A Musical Journey Through Space and Time” is a bit like “Schoolhouse Rock!” meets James Taylor, with educational lyrics about galaxies and cosmology expressed through the folksy, guitar-driven sounds of the ’60s. Webb performed acoustic versions of the nine-track album in early September before a capacity crowd at Ball State’s Charles W. Brown Planetarium. The free concert fused his music with slide presentations of astronomical wonders and intercessions about the importance of exposing children to meaningful tunes.
“My music spans the entire universe and our role in it — from relativity and gravity to extraterrestrial life. I grew up listening to music with meaning, and that’s what I aim to do — educate, inspire and entertain through science-minded songs,” said Webb, now a renowned faculty member at Florida International University in Miami.
No stranger to his alma mater
“I thought I would be a factory worker all my life, like my father, but I could never shake my love for astronomy and physics,” said Webb, a first-generation college graduate. “It took me eight years of working and going to school, but I got my degree. I keep coming back to Ball State because of my gratitude for the people who believed in and supported me during that time.”
Since graduating with his doctorate in astronomy from the University of Florida, Webb has returned dozens of times to share his research, but this will be the first time he’s performed at Ball State.
The 62-year-old said the show is dedicated to his only brother, Daniel, who died of a brain aneurysm at age 33 in 1985, “Dan introduced me to music,” he said, “and a few of his friends from our hometown are going to perform with me at the Ball State show, so it seems fitting we dedicate the night to him.” Several songs Webb will perform evolved from poetry the pair penned together as children.
“I remember how excited I was when I mowed enough lawns to buy my first telescope, and I was so into all the exploration of ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Lost in Space’ — always wondering what could be at the edges of the universe,” he said. “Science and music are both meant to be shared, and this is my way of giving back and sharing my passions and expertise.”
This summer, Webb gave an invited talk about his quasar research during a conference in Spain. He also performed, ending his set — just days after terrorist attacks in France — with John Lennon’s “Imagine.” By the last chorus, the nearly 300 people in attendance were singing together: “I hope someday you’ll join us/And the world will live as one.” It remains Webb’s favorite occasion onstage.
“That moment reminded me of the power of music to move and unite us,” he said. “It motivates me to continue to commit time to this avocation to excite people about the world around and beyond them in a fun, entertaining way.”
A star of stage and science
In addition to gigs at conferences and planetariums, Webb regularly hosts what he calls “Star Parties,” where community members are invited to gaze through telescopes and enjoy refreshments as Webb talks about the stars before he and friends perform familiar covers such as Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and a few originals. And his CD, released in 2013, educates and entertains when it’s played at observatories and planetariums throughout the world.
Playful tunes like “The Black Hole Song” are paired with more reflective social commentary, as in “Can Music Really Change the World.”
Here’s a critique from science fiction writer Spider Robinson: “Dr. Webb is gifted at intelligent songwriting: music with something more to say … . Like James Taylor, he makes music that suggests, ‘Let’s think about it a little first,’ that dares to wonder why,” wrote the Nebula Award- and multiple Hugo Award-wining novelist. “He is as musically literate as he is scientifically trained, perfectly prepared to do what Sir Paul (McCartney) called for: to take the sad song, and make it better.”
Among Webb’s most constant, enthusiastic fans (other than the ducks and cats in his backyard) are his students. For nearly 20 years, the award-winning professor has accentuated lectures about ultraviolet spectra with guitar riffs about the Big Bang theory or lines from “The James Webb Space Telescope Song.” The latter is a Webb original about NASA’s premier observatory and is named after the organization’s second administrator, James Edwin Webb, who oversaw the Mercury and Gemini programs. The song playfully recounts interactions Webb has had with people who think he is “the” James Webb.
But even without his own telescope, Webb has made quite a name for himself in the field. He secured funds for FIU’s first observatory and has been awarded research grants totaling more than $420,000. Having written and contributed to dozens of journal articles and books, Webb is finishing a graduate-level textbook, “Extragalactic Astrophysics,” for the American Institute of Physics. He is also writing a paper to summarize more than 25 years of observing quasars.
Illuminating quasars, black holes
Let’s pause to let him explain: “Quasars are distant objects at the edges of the visible universe; the light we see is billions of years old. When an object is billions of light years away, we are also looking back into time billions of years because light moves at a constant speed in space,” said Webb, director of FIU’s Stocker AstroScience Center.
“We think these starlike objects are actually supermassive black holes (billions of times heavier than the sun), deep in the centers of protogalaxies, i.e., galaxies in the process of formation in the early universe. All galaxies may have black holes in the center, but most of these black holes are dormant. The black holes in quasars are actively swallowing gas and stars at a huge rate and converting some of that mass into light that escapes out into the universe.”
Ron Kaitchuck, Ball State professor of physics and astronomy, said the university is fortunate such a student-centered, professionally connected alumnus regularly returns to campus to engage and inspire students. Webb is also partly responsible for Ball State’s access to the telescopes at some of the world’s best observing sites through Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy (SARA). Since 1998, Webb has been director of SARA and SARA-North, at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.
“James is such a down-to-earth, friendly guy, and students really relate to him, which is important because he is an accessible example of what they can do and how they can get there,” said Kaitchuck, who has taught at Ball State for 26 years. “He is generous with his time in sharing research and resources, but I am especially excited about his latest endeavor — this concert — because it demonstrates there is not, as some believe, a gulf between the sciences and humanities.”
Performance will be a planetarium first
The planetarium was designed to feature music, said Kaitchuck, who was heavily involved with planning the facility. “Blending the sights of a planetarium show with the sounds of our world just makes sense,” he added. Webb’s performance is not the first concert in the space — the Muncie Symphony Orchestra played in March — but it will be the first vocal performance.
At the very least, Webb said, he hopes the show invites the audience to sit back, look up and imagine. He especially lights up when children “get into it” or when he hears of people called to action — to donate to a planetarium, combat light pollution or enroll in a physics program.
“Scientists shouldn’t sit in ivory towers. We should be out, sharing the wonder and excitement of our research with all people. My music is a way of connecting with people and breaking down the barriers to science,” he said. “I never would be where I am today unless people urged me to overcome challenges and follow my dreams, so it motivates me to think that my story or my music could encourage someone to study the stars or even — for a moment — look up at the night sky and wonder.”