Thursday, September 6, 2007

Continued research rings a bell for summer scholar

GOSHEN, Ind. – The Goshen College physics lab echoed with the sound of handbells when science and music had an unusual collision as part of a summer research project.

It was the second year junior Jonathan Nafziger, a physics and art double major from Goshen, spent his summer ringing handbells to measure their vibrations as part of the college’s Maple Scholars program.

Maple Scholars is an eight-week summer undertaking in which students conduct independent research in various disciplines alongside a supervising faculty member.

Nafziger’s research, which will continue beyond the program’s end date, is part of Professor of Physics John Ross Buschert’s larger project. Buschert has been studying handbells since he decided they would make an interesting and interactive project in 1996. “The ultimate goal is to learn about handbells,” Buschert said. “The secondary goal is to improve them.”

For more than 10 years, Goshen College students have spent summers researching everything from mapping the vibrations of the bells, to designing attachable resonators, to physically altering bells to manipulate their sound. This summer’s excitement was the completion of a new anechoic chamber, an idea Buschert initiated a few years ago.

The chamber is a small room lined with all-white foam which absorbs sound nearly completely so there is no reflection off the walls. “Sound is directional,” Nafziger said, and this chamber will allow future researchers to record the direction of the bells’ sound. “We hope to give handbell players an idea of how sound is radiated off the bell,” he said.

Buschert first saw and tested a similar chamber when he was on sabbatical in Wales, England. “I’ve wanted to build one ever since,” he said. Now that the chamber is built, their mission is to lay common misconceptions to rest. “Most people assume the sound comes out the bell’s open end,” Buschert said, “and in actuality it comes off the sides.”

Nafziger and Buschert want to be able to share what they find with bell ringers in particular, so the musicians can better direct their sound. “I hope that we can produce some interesting visual maps that ordinary people can understand,” Buschert said. Nafziger has made some drafts already.

This summer, when he wasn’t in the chamber, Nafziger could be found in a nearby lab set up to measure the frequencies of bells with holographic images. He used the same equipment last year, but this was the first year that the college borrowed an actual set of handbells to test from a local school, Bethany Christian High School. “Jonathan is getting a whole set of measurements on Bethany’s bells that we have never had before,” Buschert said.

With the images Nafziger is trying “to find a correlation between where to place a bell clapper and where the nodal lines are,” he said. Nodal lines are places where, as he can see from the holographic recordings, the bells do not vibrate after they are struck.

Bell manufacturers determine by ear where to place the clapper, marked with what is called a scribe line, by hitting the bell in various places until they find the desired tone, with the least beating or warble. On average, Nafziger says, about a third of all bells are thrown out because no suitable clapper placement can be found. By the summer’s end, Nafziger and Buschert determined, as far as the placements of the clappers on the set of Bethany bells, “they were not random,” Buschert said. “There was in fact a good place to put the clapper.”

One outcome of the long-term research is to “potentially come up with a method for reducing the number of bells [the manufacturers] have to throw away,” Nafziger said.

While gathering the images and measurements is too expensive and time-consuming to be useful to the bell manufacturers at this point, “it’s useful from a scientific standpoint to understand this process,” Buschert said. One of the next things he’d like to do is to “see if we can tell a difference between the bells they reject and the ones they don’t.”

A third aspect of Nafziger’s research this summer was to program software so that data collected from the anechoic chamber can be processed accurately and immediately upon recording the bell tones rung within the chamber. He did this using software called Labview, which is programmed in a visual way that appears like a flow chart rather than the traditional computer code. “He’s learned that all on his own and I still don’t know how to do it,” said Buschert.

The opportunity Nafziger had to contribute to the continuing research is reflective of the potential the Maple Scholars program holds. “It’s always been amazing to me how I can imagine a new lab or system or idea and not too much later if I put some effort into it, it happens,” Buschert said. “I have the resources here to do some amazing things.”

“This is a nice intro to what research is like,” Nafziger said of the program. Plus, it “gives me a lot of tinkering skills.”

– by Kelli Yoder

Editors: For more information about this release, to arrange an interview or request a photo, contact Goshen College News Bureau Director Jodi H. Beyeler at (574) 535-7572 or


Goshen College, established in 1894, is a residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college’s Christ-centered core values – passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership – prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program, Goshen has earned citations of excellence in Barron’s Best Buys in Education, “Colleges of Distinction,” “Making a Difference College Guide” and U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” edition, which named Goshen a “least debt college.” Visit

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