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Making Music with Physics

Making Music with Physics
leah heslaLeah Hesla was 29 when she decided to go back to school to study physics. She already had an undergraduate degree in music, and a Master’s degree in musicology (from UT), but there was something missing. Now, four years later, she’s graduating with her B.S. in physics, and has been accepted into the prestigious Science Writing MFA program at Johns Hopkins University.

I sat down with her recently to discuss her decision to go back to school, her experience as an undergraduate in the physics major, and why she wants to be a science writer.

So why’d do you go back, and why physics?

Physics was my favorite subject in high school and I didn’t do it the first time I was an undergraduate. I can’t say why I didn’t do it then. I think I listened to what other people said too much. I shouldn’t have listened to that 12th grade physics teacher.

What did you enjoy most about the major?

By far the best classroom experience I had was with Dr. [Melvin] Oakes. I took two of his seminars, one on mechanics and the other on electricity and magnetism. They only met once a week, and only lasted an hour, but I think I learned more physics in that brief time than in any of the rest of my courses. He told stories that made the concepts so memorable, so easy to visualize. For a while afterward, I was able to re-tell his stories and make other people, who had no physics background, understand physics in the way I did.

Do you think your love of music is related to your love of physics?

Yes and no. When I was applying to undergraduate programs the first time, I made sure to apply to places that had programs on sound engineering. I was thinking it would be cool to design concert spaces. So in that sense, they’re related – I like learning about the physics of sound. But I also appreciate them as separate pursuits.  Nothing gives me more joy than playing in an orchestra. If I could do that every day for the rest of my life, I would.  But I also really enjoy working on physics problems that have nothing to do with sound. That’s its own pleasure as well.

What was appealing about pursuing a degree in science writing?

In an ideal world, I might like to focus on physics, but if I had done graduate work in physics, I would be in retirement by the time I finished. I really enjoy writing, and when I learned about the program they have at Hopkins, which treats science writing as an art form in its own right, it seemed like a good balance.

What do you want to write about?

I’m really fascinated by science and public policy. That could mean, for instance, writing about someone like Caster Semenya, the South African runner who’s having her sex vetted by her competitors, by the IAAF, by the public. That’s a story that involves science, but it also involves politics and identity. I’m also interested in the kinds of debates that are happening more within the world of science. Who gets funded, for instance? How much of it depends on how good the scientists are at marketing themselves versus how much intrinsic merit there is to the project?

What are you favorite books about science?

Timothy Ferris’s Coming of Age in the Milky Way is amazing. And James Gleick’s Chaos. They’re both great. I’m drawn, in science writing, to anything that’s clear. If it’s clear then it’s beautiful, because the science is beautiful.
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Comments 2

 
Guest - Robert Winter on Saturday, 24 July 2010 14:10

I'm so glad Leah had the opportunity to study with Melvin Oakes. I'm privileged to have Mel as a brother-in-law (eat your hearts out!). I've taught music for more than thirty years at UCLA. I had only one opportunity to hear Mel lecture at UT and it was one of the high points of my life. I've never seen a group of normally squirmy and bored students so attentive; indeed, they were mesmerized by the way in which Prof. Oakes made the science unfold like a whodunnit, and you were just itching every moment to hear the next installment. Teaching complex phenomena in a clear manner (not to mention the humor!) is easily the greatest challenge a teacher faces. You have to maintain the attention of not just the fast trackers but those who are struggling. Everyone should encounter such a teacher at least once in their lifetime. Mel has taught me one-on-one hundreds of times over the years and I only wish I had recorded all our sessions. I remember enough of them to have become a better teacher--and, I hope, person. Thanks, Leah; thanks, Mel.

I'm so glad Leah had the opportunity to study with Melvin Oakes. I'm privileged to have Mel as a brother-in-law (eat your hearts out!). I've taught music for more than thirty years at UCLA. I had only one opportunity to hear Mel lecture at UT and it was one of the high points of my life. I've never seen a group of normally squirmy and bored students so attentive; indeed, they were mesmerized by the way in which Prof. Oakes made the science unfold like a whodunnit, and you were just itching every moment to hear the next installment. Teaching complex phenomena in a clear manner (not to mention the humor!) is easily the greatest challenge a teacher faces. You have to maintain the attention of not just the fast trackers but those who are struggling. Everyone should encounter such a teacher at least once in their lifetime. Mel has taught me one-on-one hundreds of times over the years and I only wish I had recorded all our sessions. I remember enough of them to have become a better teacher--and, I hope, person. Thanks, Leah; thanks, Mel.
Guest - Articles Listing on Monday, 16 July 2012 20:02

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