COSAM News Articles 2020 August Musical Background Inspires Physics Alumna to Teach the Physics of Music

Musical Background Inspires Physics Alumna to Teach the Physics of Music

Published: 08/18/2020

By: Maria Gebhardt

“A degree in physics teaches you so much more than just physics,” explained Catherine Jahncke ’88. “You learn how to be a problem solver. You learn perseverance because most of the problems you tackle are challenging. Those skills will help you no matter what career you choose. So my advice is to embrace the challenges, solve the little puzzles that you encounter, each one helps you to grow.”

Jahncke, chair and the Hayward Associate Professor of Physics at Saint Lawrence University in Canton, New York, has always loved playing music.

“I have been playing the guitar since I was 10 years old,” she added. “I started to play the bass in 2002 when some friends of mine started a blue grass band and needed a bass player. I am currently playing the bass for the band Uprooted, an all-female band whose main strength is vocal harmony. I also now play the fiddle and the mandolin. Uprooted plays local venues including some of the interesting old opera houses in Northern New York like Pickens Hall and the Edwards Opera House.”

Jahncke teaches a Physics of Music class where students learn how sound is created and how musical instruments work—wind, string and percussion instruments. Then, students learn about electricity and magnetism concluding with them building both a musical instrument and a speaker.

“I started teaching this class with a friend in the music department. His father was a physicist, and he is a musician. When we team teach this course, Chris Watts brings in music theory and music perception, and I contribute the physics piece. The class is a lab class, so I wanted to have interesting activities for the students to explore ways the music and physics connect. Musical instruments are a great starting place. While the details are very complex, there are some very basic ideas that can be explored in lab such as the link between musical scales and fret spacing on a guitar for example. Electricity and magnetism is another fun connection where we can build a speaker and talk about how it works. Instrument pickups, treble and bass controls, and microphones are all great examples of the intersection between music and physics.  We end the semester by building wind chimes that are tuned to a particular chord that the students select,” Jahncke said.

Her research involves optics and optical properties of materials.

“Very generally my research involves learning about materials by studying their optical properties,” she said.  “Two primary tools I have used in my work are Raman spectroscopy and near-field scanning optical microscopy (NSOM). Raman spectroscopy tells us about the vibrational modes present in a material and can be used to identify materials or tell us about the stress or strain in those materials. NSOM is a scanned probe technique where we can learn about materials with resolution far smaller than the diffraction limit of light.  My current work is in collaboration with chemists at St. Lawrence University. Dr. Adam Hill studies heterobimetallic materials which perform artificial photosynthesis and can be used as a step in creating a carbon neutral fuel source. We use Raman spectroscopy to learn more about the processes in these materials. Dr. Samantha Glazier studies the binding of chemotherapy drugs to DNA by probing their kinetics. My contribution has been to build a Temperature Jump apparatus that will allow us to see fast binding by monitoring the fluorescence of the materials as a function of time.”

Jahncke has more than 700 citations since 2103, and the work she is most proud of is from her time as a graduate student at North Carolina State University.

“I was fortunate to be in school during the time when scanned probe microscopies were being developed. I was the first person to measure a Raman image using NSOM (Jahncke C.L., M.A. Paesler, and H.D. Hallen. ‘Raman imaging with near-field scanning optical microscopy.’ Appl. Phys. Lett. 67 (1995): 2483-2485.) This work led to a second publication titled ‘Electric Field Gradient Effects in Raman Spectroscopy’ published in Physical Review Letters (Ayers E.J, H.D. Hallen and C. L. Jahncke. ‘Electric field gradient effects in Raman spectroscopy.’ Phys Rev Lett, 85 (2000): 4180-4183). This paper looks at the theory of Raman scattering near small metal surfaces (like those present in metal coated NSOM probes or in Surface enhanced Raman) that can result in large electric field gradients which can change the Raman selection rules.”

Jahncke teaches junior level lab courses at Saint Lawrence University.

“I do love teaching the advanced lab courses. I love the puzzles that we get to solve in lab. Sometimes those puzzles involve making equipment work. Sometimes those puzzles involve teasing out information from data. Working with students to help them learn this type of problem solving is really fun. Plus physicists always have the best toys, and we get to play with them in the lab.”


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