|Magnificent in theory
By Tony Staley
|Jon DesChane ’12 (above) and Jeff LaJeunesse ‘13 worked with Erik Brekke (Physics) to construct this Rubens tube as a means of demonstrating sound waves and resonant frequencies. The device is attached to a propane supply and a speaker is placed at one end. Changes in the sound affect the height of the flames.
Before Meagan Murphy ’15 took Physics in the Arts, she didn’t know how the scientific principles of physics might apply to her.
Now, she knows that they do, whether it’s a question of playing the guitar or seeing her reflection in a window.
“I’m learning a lot of interesting things and how they apply to my life,” says Murphy, of Chicago. She now knows how the air she blows into her instrument, the trumpet, makes sound waves and “how temperature change affects sound, so that I can better predict how my instrument sounds.”
Holly Nickerson ’15, a political science and leadership major from Fremont, Ind., says she has learned how physics relates to playing the clarinet, and that “it’s not just honking.” Lessons about light refraction, cameras and lenses have improved her photography, too.
“Now I can deal with shadows before I shoot, rather than in the computer,” says Nickerson, whose photos chronicle her life. “I am taking better pictures now and my family tells me they can see it.”
Erik Brekke (Physics) says that’s the point of the class: teaching non-science majors to see the world and technology in a different way, by understanding the physics involved in light and sound, and how they are produced and perceived by the ears and eyes.
Learning about waves, reflection, refraction, lenses, oscillations and resonance gives students interested in theatre, music, photography and painting new understandings about how their instruments work; the way sound travels; how to mix colors and manipulate lighting.
“For example, they learn that when they play an instrument there’s more to the sound than blowing, and where their finger is,” Brekke says. “They learn why it makes that sound, what affects the sound and why sounds differ. It’s not just what happens, but why.”
Beyond that, Brekke says: “The idea is to teach them a better appreciation of the things they do or use. It’s about a new way of thinking, of problem solving, of thinking about what happens and why.”
Maggie Berens ’14, of Elmgrove, Ill., an elementary education major, says she is not only learning things she will use in her classroom, but also how to make connections and critically analyze what she observes. “In theater, the sound is transmitted through microphones, but when I’m in the theater I don’t think about that. Now, I will slow down and explore that,” says Berens.
Besides attending three lectures each week, students have a weekly lab where they experience physics with such scientific instruments as motion detectors, tuning forks and mirrors.
To demonstrate the relationship between sound waves and sound pressure, Brekke uses a visual device, the Rubens – or standing wave flame – tube. The tube, which has numerous holes in the top, is attached to a propane supply and a speaker is placed at one end. Changes in the sound affect the height of the flames.
That demonstration and the labs, combined with what students learn in lectures and assignments, “open the world to them in a new way,” Brekke says. “There’s a lot most people haven’t thought about in physical phenomena. We just take it for granted. Physics explains why technology works. I want them to think about where these things come from, why they work and how we can make it work better. It requires a different way of thinking.”
The lesson about light and lenses changed how Eddie Kepes ’14, a business major from Homewood, Ill., perceives his contact lens. “It’s weird to know about the science behind that little piece of plastic that goes into my eyes every morning.”
July 8, 2012