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Subject: Opera and Physics
From: Deja User <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Deja User <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Thu, 31 May 2001 13:13:51 -0700

text/plain (81 lines)

I thought this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education might be found somewhat interesting ...


In This Physics Course, Students Go to the Opera

Davidson, N.C.
Physics pop quiz: What do a diva's vocal cords, a Boeing 747's wing, and a Swiss scientist named Daniel Bernoulli have in common?

That's easy, says Daniel M. Boye, a professor of physics here at Davidson College: lift.

It was Bernoulli who, in the 18th century, identified the phenomenon that makes it possible for an airplane to fly. The same principle also makes the vocal cords vibrate and enables an opera singer to hit a high C.

This is basic stuff for a physicist. Mr. Boye poses such questions because he's interested in the connections -- "pulling together these threads from many different areas of human experience," as he puts it. The connections between flying an airplane and singing an aria represent just the blending of science and art that he strives to achieve in his professional life and to share with his students. When he is not teaching physics to undergraduates and conducting research in laser spectroscopy, Mr. Boye sings bass-baritone with professional opera companies and orchestras in North Carolina, Ohio, and Colorado.

Over the past year, he taught his perennially popular course, "Physics 115" -- known on campus as the "physics of music" -- and sang lead roles in Puccini's Turandot and Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, both staged by Opera Carolina, a highly regarded regional company based in Charlotte, N.C.

This summer, he will perform as a guest artist at the Breckenridge Music Festival, in Colorado -- singing a repertoire as varied as Richard Strauss and Cole Porter -- after delivering two research papers at a professional meeting in Lyons, France.

Physics was a natural calling for Mr. Boye, who just turned 43. It's -- "our family business," he says, with a smile. His father was a physicist. So was a great-uncle. So are his brother and his sister-in-law. "It was never pushed on us or anything," he says, but his home life was "an environment for discovery."

"It was always a puzzle, a game, to find out how a certain toy worked, or why the moon always faced us, why we never see the other side."

"And model rocketry. The book October Sky -- you know, the rocket boys? That could have been our family."

"The physics of music" is geared to the nonscientist, the English-lit or poli-sci major who needs a science course to fulfill a distribution requirement. It's all about making sense of the sound of music.

In a recent class, Mr. Boye reminds students about Bernoulli's principle. In the case of an airplane's design, air moves faster across the top of the wing than across the bottom. As a result, the air pressure under the wing is greater than that on top and lifts the wing.

He stands in front of the class and blows up an emerald-green balloon until it's fat and round. Then he forces the air out while stretching the lips of the balloon into a long, thin smile. The lips vibrate in a shrill Bronx cheer, after which Mr. Boye explains that singing is simply a more aesthetically pleasing version of Bernoulli's principle. When a singer exhales, air rushes over the vocal cords, reducing the pressure so that they close. But as soon as they do, pressure builds up behind them and forces them open again. And so it goes -- open, close, open, close, from 110 to 880 times a second, depending on the note being sung. The note vibrating 440 times a second is concert A, the one that is used to tune the instruments in an orchestra.

Mr. Boye had his own first encounter with musical performance in first grade, when he joined a church choir. The roots of his fascination with the physical aspects of singing came later, at Emory & Henry College, where he majored in physics and math, ran track, and sang in the chorus. The choral director, his first voice teacher, was an All-American football player who approached voice not as a "mystical, aesthetic phenomenon," the way many voice coaches do, Mr. Boye says, "but as a physical manifestation of music. We had a common vocabulary in sports."

To his Davidson students, Mr. Boye explains the physical manifestations of music, beginning with the way musical instruments and the voice work, the way the ear hears, and the acoustics of concert halls. His singing ability comes in handy. When he wanted to make a point about pitch -- an octave being a perfect frequency -- he could sing the octave interval, says Jordan Gratrix, who took the physics class last semester.

Tuned in to his audience, Mr. Boye also spends time on amplifiers, computer music, synthesizers, MP3's, and CD and DVD players, which dovetails nicely with his specialty, laser spectroscopy. "I use laser light to excite impurities in crystals and in glass," he says. (Impurities in sapphires, for example, can turn them into other stones. Chromium, for example, turns them red, and they become rubies. Iron impurities turn them blue, so that they look like what people normally think of as sapphires. Without impurities, they would be clear.)

The purpose of his research is to "see how the energy is transformed inside the crystal or the glass" when he beams laser light at them. Since some lasers are made using crystals, one result could be eventually making a better laser, which has applications in medicine and optics as well as in DVD players.

"I've always been fascinated by laser light," Mr. Boye says. "It's beautiful. It's bright. When a laser is resonant with a crystal, the entire crystal glows."

Back in the physics class, he plays an aria from Susannah, a beautiful piece sung in crystalline tones by the soprano Cheryl Studer: "Ain't it a pretty night! The sky's so dark and velvet-like. And it's all lit up with stars."

"To me, that's very moving, and I'm very lucky in that I got to hear our Susannah sing that 20, 30 times" during rehearsals and performances, Mr. Boye tells the class. The music gets under your skin, he says, but even more powerful is "the human, out there, standing on the stage, revealing themselves to you and singing. You know, how often do humans reveal themselves to each other?"

The students attended at least one performance of Susannah as a course requirement -- part of Mr. Boye's aim to "develop this more sophisticated listener and audience member. They will have seen how a scientist would approach all of these different aspects of a performance. Then they can look at it in a different way than if they had just bought a ticket and gone in."

"There's a connection there. And what I'm trying to build in these students is a way for them to seek connections with the performers, with the music, with the production, in ways that they might not have thought of."

Beth A. Daniel, a student in the class, found Susannah surprisingly enjoyable. "I thought it was neat -- especially to see your professor, to see him doing not what he's doing every day.

"When he came out for the curtain call, we had to restrain ourselves," she says. "We wanted to yell 'Go, Dr. Boye!'"

Section: The Faculty
Page: A40

Don Operatico, baritono quasi cantante

Nick Tussing
Catholic University of America

E l'universo intero
mi parve un riso allor!
"And the entire universe
seemed to smile upon me then!"
(Corrado, Maria de Rudenz)

--== Sent via ==--

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