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CAS Explores the Physics of Music on National Mall

Physics Professor Nate Harshman and High School Noura Jaber will demonstrate Chladni plates at the Expo.

Professor Harshman and High School student Noura Jaber experiment with Chlandi plates. Photo credit: Kaitie O'Hare

The physics department and audio technology programs are teaming up on October 23-24 to present “The Physics of Music” exhibit on the National Mall, part of the larger two-week long USA Science and Engineering Festival Expo taking place around the D.C. area.

“The Physics of Music” will be one of over 1,500 hands-on activities offered by over 500 of the nation’s leading science organizations. “It’s a who’s who of science in the United States,” says Physics Associate Professor Nate Harshman. “AU should have a bigger presence in D.C., and AU science should have a bigger presence in D.C. as well.”

Harshman has been organizing this exhibit since February, collaborating with the audio technology program to create multiple hands-on demonstrations.

“I thought music would have an appeal that some things that were science, just for science’s sake, wouldn’t hit,” says Harshman. “I like the idea of physics and music because it’s supposed to be stuff for pre-teens and teens.”

The exhibit, sponsored by the College of Arts and Science, features three demonstration tables, each showcasing a different aspect of physics and corresponding instruments or devices.

Harshman’s arranged three tables exploring everything from acoustic instruments, such as the autoharp, Chinese singing bowls, Chladni plates, and Helmholtz resonators, to electronics demonstrations of a microphone and a theramin. This musical instrument detects the position of the players’ hands with an antenna so that it can be played without being touched. Another table demonstrates auto tuning, a voice Fourier analyzer, and a Wii created by audio technology Assistant Professor William Brent that has been programmed to sing by adjusting the tone, volume, and vowel with the remote’s motion.

Harshman hopes the exhibit will give young adults a better understanding of the physics behind music, and help them distinguish between analog electronic and digital electronic instruments. “People don’t often realize there’s a difference between the two, but there is," he says. But more importantly, he just wants kids to have fun.

The USA Science and Engineering Festival Expo runs from 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 23 and Sunday, October 24 on the National Mall. For more information, please visit the USA Science Festival Web site.