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Science professor serenades his students

Professor Walter Smith serenades his Haverford College students with songs about electronics and Einstein, oscillations and Ampere's Law.
Haverford College physics professor Walter Smith plays a baritone ukulele and sings a song about physics to his class.Coke Whitworth / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When it comes to teaching physics, lab work is certainly important. 

But don't forget the ukulele. 

That's a lesson professor Walter Smith has learned over the past few years at Haverford College, where he serenades students with songs about electronics and Einstein, oscillations and Ampere's Law.

On the first day of class Monday, Smith greeted his sophomore physics students with the "Waves Syllabus Song," sung to the tune of "Scotland the Brave":

Fourier Analysis! Complex functions, oh what bliss!
Eigenvalues, diff. e.q., matrix math, and phasors, too!
This is our field of study — Come on, and bring a buddy!
Don't be a fuddy-duddy — we welcome you!

Katie Baratz, a junior who took a class with Smith as a freshman, said she didn't quite know how to react when her professor broke into song.  "It really came out of nowhere," said Baratz, 20.  "I knew that he was very well liked but I had never heard anything about this."

Smith said the admittedly "kooky" tunes, co-written with his wife, help students think more creatively about science.  They also make the class less intimidating, he said, because seeing him sing along to a baritone ukulele — imagine a child's toy guitar — makes him more human and easier to approach for help.

And, of course, the songs are a learning tool. Baratz recalled taking a test and "all of a sudden I would hear this song in my head" that would help her remember pertinent information.

"Physics can be very dry because it's a lot of memorizing a lot of equations," she said.  "I think music is a very powerful mnemonic device."

Smith, who has been performing in class since 1999, also sees his compositions as contributing to a well-established, little-known repertoire of physics- and astronomy-related songs dating back several decades.

Catalogued on his Web site, the 185-song database will soon include previously unreleased recordings from "The Physical Revue" by satirist Tom Lehrer.  Lehrer, who gained fame in the 1950s, is a mathematician and musician whose works include setting the names of the chemical elements to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Major-General" song.

The site features songs by Smith's students as well. Baratz and her friend Charles Collett came up with "In My Mind I've Got Physics Equations," sung to the tune of James Taylor's "Carolina in My Mind."

In my mind I've got physics equations,
Faraday and Ampere tell you how to be where.
Governing the world we live in: this is why I care, and have
Physics equations in my mind.

Also included in Smith's database are the works of James Livingston, who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Livingston composed either a poem or song for each chapter of his book, "Electronic Properties of Engineering Materials."

For Chapter 7 — titled "Elasticity, Springs, and Sonic Waves" — he wrote "The Three Nesses (Stiff-, Hard- and Tough-)."  It's sung to Madonna's "Material Girl":

Some boys give me polymers, and want my company
Most of them are not so stiff, but nylon pleases me
Some boys give me ceramics, and most are not so tough
But I like covalent bonds, and diamonds are good stuff

Livingston said although he would hand out the verses with the class syllabus, he wasn't brave enough to perform them.

"I don't think I've ever sung them in class," Livingston said. "I just thought they might be kind of fun for the students to play with."