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Physics professor gets musical, sudsy

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

MEDIA CONTACT: Hilary Dickinson at or 608-363-2849

From fluid dynamics to the physics of music, Professor Paul E. Stanley engages in a variety of research.

Stanley, who holds the Dobson Endowed Professorship in Physics, is working on a research project with Xiyu (Chrissy) Du’12 in fluid dynamics that examines the process of washing dishes, particularly the effect of water forming a circle when it hits a plate. Stanley’s and Du’s research is primarily focusing on this effect when dish soap is added. Du will present their findings at a conference of the Division of Fluid Dynamics at the American Physical Society. Stanley usually attends this conference every two years, and brings along a student who is planning to go to graduate school.

But that’s not all. Stanley’s other current research focuses on Asian flutes—he compares traditional flutes from adjacent countries to determine whether the flute migrated from nation A to nation B, or vice versa, and what scales they play. Stanley collects both pictures of and actual flutes on his travels, three to six times a year, to Asia. A number of Asian instruments—including the flutes—collected by Stanley are on display on the second floor of the Center for the Sciences. 

Stanley’s research also blends into his Physics of Music course, offered every spring. Students perform lab experiments to deduce what scales the instruments would play without actually playing them. Once they have decided a scale, they play the instruments to see if they were correct. Stanley is currently working on a paper on this topic and has conducted presentations on it in the past. 

“I really like the science of Asian sounds in the Physics of Music course. It combines music with something that students tend not to like—math and physics,” Stanley said. “I like turning the beautiful into the abstract.”

Source:  Paul E. Stanley is the holder of the Dobson Endowed Professorship in Physics and is the Chair of Physics and Astronomy.  He teaches courses on introductory physics, the physics of music, mathematical methods for scientists, and modern physics.  Stanley’s research focuses on classical and quantum chaos, and varies between highly theoretical, heavily computational, and playfully experimental.  He also writes undergraduate physics textbooks and is currently the director of the U.S. Physics Team, which selects and trains high school students to represent the U.S. in the International Physics Olympiad.  In addition to his work as a physicist, he is a former Peace Corps volunteer who can communicate in a number of languages, including Fijan and Gilbertese, and he plays the trumpet semi-professionally.  Stanley can serve as a media source on topics related to his teaching and research. For more information on Stanley, visit his department website here.