Contact: Wendel Sloan at 505.562.2253
Reporter: Scarlet Smith
PORTALES--The physics career of an Eastern New Mexico University professor began at an early age when he studied the motion of falling cats.
"When I was about five", Dr. Bill Andersen said, "my mother made the mistake of telling me that a falling cat always lands on its feet. My first thought was to find a cat and see for myself."
Using the cat of an outraged neighbor, the young Dr. Andersen, now an assistant professor of physics, set out to test this theory and found, to his amazement, that his mother was right. He advises, "Due to ethical considerations, I do not recommend that others try this."
Dr. Andersen came to Eastern in 1995 from Iowa with his wife, Gillian Andersen, an ENMU instructor of English. When not doing mad physics projects, he enjoys taking his two sons swimming at the Portales Country Club. "It is fun for the boys and easy on my pocketbook because the club offers a nice deal for a summer swimming membership."
"The Physics of Music" is one of the courses which Dr. Andersen teaches. "The physics of music is even more universal than the music, and older than the stars," Dr. Anderson writes in the course syllabus. "The purpose of this course is to enlarge an individual's view of the world so they can appreciate the perspectives of different cultures."
Dr. Andersen explained that physics "is the scientific study of motion. As a matter of fact, physics and music are closely related."
He demonstrated this by placing a two foot-long hollow PVC pipe (with a few layers of window screen near one end) over the flame of a Bunsen burner for a few moments. When removed from the heat the PVC produced a deep resonating pitch, much like an organ pipe, powered by the hot window screen. This demonstrated that heat energy can become sound energy; thus, sound is a kind of motion.
"There is also an important historical connection between physics and music," according to Dr. Andersen. "Vincenzo Galilei, a Renaissance musician and mathematician, was the father of Galileo Galilei, a natural philosopher and mathematician. It could be argued that modern physics began with Galileo's investigations of free fall. Early in his career, Galileo followed his contemporaries in the unproductive practice of relying heavily on reason and logic as indicators of truth. Progress came as Galileo came to the view that human experience, in the form of experiment and observation, was the final arbiter of truth in the natural world. Decades earlier Vincenzo Galilei had been the member of a renegade group of musicians who challenged established theories of harmony based on pure mathematics by demanding that harmonies should sound pleasing to the ear and not just satisfy certain mathematical propositions as to what 'should' be beautiful. Dr. Andersen contends, "One cannot help but wonder if Galileo's change in philosophy was not influenced by the example of his father Vincenzo."
Dr. Andersen explained some of the most intriguing mysteries that he ponders regarding the way the universe works. "I think the fact that humans are part of the universe is fascinating. Why am I me instead of that poor cat I tossed into the air years ago? Is the natural universe all there is or is there more? In my opinion, these sorts of questions are outside the realm of science.
" As far as scientific questions go, I think I most wonder about gravity. About three centuries ago, Isaac Newton invented a very successful theory which connected falling apples (and cats!) with planetary motions. About one century ago Einstein came up with an improved theory of gravity. Einstein's theory has survived exacting tests for systems no bigger than our solar system but does it hold for galactic and cosmic distances? If it does, observations indicate that most of the universe is made of stuff that we don't know about. If the universe is made out of ordinary matter, then Einstein's theory must fail at very large distances. Either way, it's big news. It is a very exciting time to be an astrophysicist."
His current research is done in collaboration with two Russian researchers (at the Volgograd Pedagogical Institute and the renowned Sternberg Astronomical Institute) in the investigation of the orbital motion of hierarchical triple-star systems. The work, recently accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal, investigates the stability of stellar systems that consist of two stars orbiting closely together with a third star orbiting the two stars at a greater distance. "Due to unexplained anomalies in the variation of light coming from them, certain binary star systems are suspected of having an unseen companion. My colleagues and I are hoping to make use of the Magdelena Ridge Observatory being planned by New Mexico Tech and others to actually see the third star in some of these systems."
Dr. Andersen said the thing he most likes about teaching physics to college students at ENMU is trying to find out how students are thinking about things and prodding them to include scientific thought in their world view. "Science is not just about learning complicated words and facts. It is a way of finding things out."
Dr. Andersen also enjoys sharing the nature of science with younger students. He recently did an experiment at Eastern's Kids' College in which he took two identical pieces of paper and crumpled one up and kept the other flat. He asked the children which piece of paper was heavier. Most of the younger students said it would be the crumpled piece of paper, some explaining their belief on the basis that the crumpled paper hits the ground first when the two pieces of paper are released together. Some children recognized that air plays a role. Eventually, a child suggested using a scale to compare the papers. Not coincidentally, professor Andersen had a simple balance hidden nearby which he revealed to perform the experiment suggested by the student.Dr. Andersen explained, "The most important thing about this little talk, as I emphasized to the children, is that they learned something about gravity by their own questions, ideas, and observations; not from me, and not from a book."