UO physics professor and guitarist examines the close connection between science and music

Timothy Jenkins has been teaching physics at UO since 1992 and has been playing guitar since he was 14. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

University of Oregon physics professor Timothy Jenkins has been passionate about science and music since a young age. Growing up on a farm in Ridgefield, Washington, about 25 miles north of Portland, Jenkins enjoyed singing in his church choir. At the same time, he cultivated an interest in science from reading sci-fi novels. A book mobile drove around Ridgefield and delivered books by sci-fi authors such as Isaac Asimov to Jenkins’ farm.

He has been teaching physics at UO since 1992 and he’s been playing guitar since he was 14. Rock, blues and folk by bands such as The Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Mississippi John Hurt captivated Jenkins as a teenager and in college.

Now, he primarily instructs a general physics course, but he also teaches a class on the physics of sound during the summer. He says that music and science are more connected than people often think, and that his interest in both is common in his field.

“Galileo said something along the lines of, ‘The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics,’” Jenkins said. “But that applies to music as well.”

Jenkins is one example in a long list of physicists who are also gifted musicians. The most well-known person from that list is Albert Einstein, who played the violin. According to a 1980 article by Durham Morning Herald music reviewer Peregrine White, “A well-worn fiddle case accompanied [Einstein] wherever he went.”

“A lot of people think of science as strictly an intellectual pursuit, but it’s a creative pursuit as well,” Jenkins said. “Certainly music helps in the creative process.”

Recent studies by researchers such as neuroscientist Anita Collins show that being exposed to music at a young age and playing an instrument throughout life have a plethora of benefits for the brain. Playing music helps create the pathways in the brain that are useful in thinking about the world scientifically. In a 2014 “TED-Ed” video, Collins discusses how playing an instrument combines the linguistic and mathematical thinking present in the left hemisphere of the brain with the more creative thinking present in the right hemisphere.

“Playing a musical instrument engages practically every area of the brain at once,” Collins said in the video. The full brain engagement that comes with playing music promotes the creative thinking that may help a physicist solve a problem or develop a new theory.

Jenkins says that his scientific understanding of acoustic vibrations has also made him a better guitar player and performer. It allows him to think about the sounds he’s making in a more intimate way, and that allows him to be more creative when he plays.

He has the opportunity to teach a blend of music and science through his summertime  course at UO, which draws students from both the physics and music departments. He says it’s intriguing to see how students from both departments think about assignments differently.

For in-class assignments, Jenkins first makes students solve problems on their own. Then he has students do the same problems in groups. He pairs students with a strong music backgrounds with students who have a strong science backgrounds. He says that when students with different backgrounds work together, they do better. The process of justifying their approach to a student with a different background forces students to clarify their thinking and learn different ways to solve the same problem.

Jenkins plans to retire from his work at UO at the end of 2019, and he’s looking forward to having more time to focus on music and play more gigs. He plays about two or three shows a year right now, including an annual show at the Creswell Fourth of July parade where he plays for an hour at the historical museum in town.

“I just want to play more shows,” Jenkins said. “I’ve always done a lot of Anglo-American folk songs so I’d love to do a big tour through the United Kingdom at some point after I retire.”