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New course blends science and music

The lecturer, a faculty member in the department of art, is discussing the aesthetics of a functional design; African culture; using gourds as amplification devices; and a method of finding a still point in a piece of paduck wood using sawdust flakes. The presentation has captivated the 30 or so students listening in the main exhibit hall of the William Benton Museum. It is clear that this is a completely different way to learn physics.

The lecture is part of a new class Physics 107-Q "The Physics of Music," a four-credit lab class created by George Gibson, an assistant professor of physics.

Though physics classes that deal with this subject are not new, Gibson has altered the traditional approach to perspective and content.

"Most of these types of courses focus on the physics behind the music or musical acoustics," Gibson says. "But music is about sound waves. If students can really understand the physics behind sound waves, then they can understand light waves in a laser or matter waves in a hydrogen atom. It's all interrelated. In this way I can actually use music to teach physics."

A musician at heart
Gibson's own interest in music is long-standing. He has been playing the piano since he was eight years old and even dropped out of graduate studies in physics at Harvard to pursue the piano.

"I spent two and a half years studying the piano, including a year in London," he says. "But it is even harder to make a career as a pianist than as a physicist. One day my teacher told me that I was quite good, but that I would probably end up having to teach little children the piano to make a living. So I decided to go back to physics."

Gibson went on to receive his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago, focusing his research on ultra-short pulse lasers. But he continued to play the piano and after arriving at the UConn in 1993, he began to consider how to combine his two loves - physics and music.

With encouragement and advice from Warren Campbell, then an associate professor of music but now retired, he began to explore the creation of a course teaching physics through music.

From theory to practice
The course was approved in early 1997, but then Gibson had to create much of his teaching material from scratch. "No one had written a text from the perspective I wanted to take," he says.

Gibson decided to offer two sections of the course this semester, both of which filled up immediately.

About half of the students have had some formal training in music and a large percentage of these are music majors. The rest have had no formal exposure to music beyond what they listen to on their stereo systems. But Gibson is impressed with the students' enthusiasm and ability.

"There is this impression that teaching science to non-scientists on a college level is difficult," he says. "But I've found that the students are doing quite well, and I have been able to push them much further than I thought I could. I'm not holding back on the difficulty of the problem sets, either."

Among the assignments is one that Gibson offered for extra credit - the building of a musical instrument. Some of the students expressed interest in the idea, but few went beyond that. Luck was on his side, however.

At the recent faculty art exhibition at the Old State House, Gibson saw an African balafon created by Ray Dicapua, an associate professor of art. Dicapua mentioned that he had never built such an instrument before and had to learn a lot physics to do so, and Gibson jumped at the chance to have him give a presentation in class.

The balafon, an African form of xylophone, is a three-octave instrument with a pentatonic (five-note) scale. Dicapua created his instrument from scratch, from mahogany, paduck wood, bungee cord, waxed cotton fiber, and gourds.

It took 180 hours of design time, and an equal amount of hands-on labor by Dicapua and Gary Krewson, a research technician in art and art history. During the process, Dicapua had to learn how sound travels through the types of wood he was working with, and how to sculpt and carve the wood to get precise notes.

As Dicapua described to the class how he used sawdust and a mallet to find the nodes - the still points - of the playing surfaces, the students gave knowing nods. It turned out they had done a similar experiment in class using white sand and metal plates.

"Ray's presentation was a great success," Gibson says. "I wanted the students to see the practical applications of what we had been discussing, and I wanted to inspire them to pursue the extra credit assignment. Ray's presentation did both."

Gibson is excited about offering the class again next fall, and even theorizes that a textbook may come out of the course. But he is careful about doing too much too fast.

"Even though we were enrolled to capacity and could probably support another section or two, I want to keep it limited to two sections, at least for now. I don't want anything to detract from the quality of the instruction or the learning experience."

David Pesci