From the Classroom: New Discoveries with Joseph Szymanski ’17

For the second installment of “From the Classroom,” we asked students to answer the following prompt:

Please describe a moment in class when your perspective changed about a certain topic, you learned something surprising, or something interested you and inspired to research more specifically about that topic. 

Here’s what junior drama major Joseph Szymanski had to say:

One thing I’ve come to realize over the past few weeks in The Sound of Space is that scientists and artists have a great deal in common—they both strive to improve their craft and make history by discovering or creating something exciting and new. In order to do this, one must be well versed in the history of their craft. For Vassar theatermakers, this means dedicating time to studying the works of dramatists like Aeschylus and Shakespeare as well as those of philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato—the works of those who are, by and large, the most revered within Western theatrical canon. The saying, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” comes to mind when I think about this, and though it is a bit cliche, thinking about this quote reminds me of an exciting lesson and experiment that my final project group conducted a few weeks ago. What if those who learn from history are doomed to improve upon it rather than simply repeat it?

Since our professors endeavor to give us an education on acoustics that is both broad and deep, much of our class time in The Sound of Space is dedicated to learning about architectural, musical, and scientific history. During one of these history lessons, Professor Bradley taught our class about Wallace Clement Sabine, an American physicist who is credited as the father of modern architectural acoustics. Sabine, who was a young professor at Harvard during the late 1890s, conducted an experiment at where he studied the effects that heavy fabrics have on the acoustics of a space. At night time, when campus was quiet and everyone had tucked in for bed, Sabine and his students would travel to Fogg Lecture Hall and conduct their tests. They filled the space with heavy cushions and tested the effect that these cushions had on the acoustics of the space. Through his experimentation, Sabine was able to conclude that heavy fabrics did in fact absorb a substantial amount of sound energy—which was a big discovery at the time.

Since Sabine’s experiment was such a big deal, my final project group thought it would be interesting to recreate Sabine’s experiment in the Vassar Chapel, in order to see what results could be produced with contemporary physics equipment. Following in Sabine’s footsteps, Annie MacMillan, Ellie Vamos, and I, along with a group of our friends, set about removing the cushions from the Vassar Chapel. Once all the cushions had been removed we could immediately tell there was a huge difference in way that sound interacted with the space. Any sounds produced in the Chapel now reverberated throughout the space for far longer than they did while the cushions were in their pews, which was also evidenced in our acoustical measurements. We had essentially recreated an experiment that made this course’s existence possible, which is precisely why this was one of the most fulfilling and satisfying moments that I’ve experienced in The Sound of Space. I’m looking forward to delving into this data more deeply, and comparing the measurements we took in the cushion-less Chapel to additional measurements we will continue to take over the next few weeks. I have no doubts that the results of our continued experimentation will anything less than phenomenal!



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