### Lying

Sometimes, for the sake of pedagogy, it is best to suppress some of the ugly details, in order to give a clear exposition of the *idea* behind a particular concept one is trying to teach. But clarity isn’t achieved by outright lies. And I always find myself frustrated when our introductory courses descend to the latter.

My colleague, Sonia, is teaching the introductory “Waves” course (Phy 315) which, as you might imagine, is all about solving the equation

This has travelling wave solutions, with dispersion relation

If you study solutions to (1), on the interval $[0,L]$, with “free” boundary conditions at the endpoints,

you find standing wave solutions $u(x,t) = A \cos(k x)\cos( c k t)$ where the boundary condition at $x=L$ imposes

The first couple of these “normal modes” look like

To “illustrate” this, in their compulsory lab accompanying the course, the students were given the task of measuring the normal modes of a thin metal bar, with free boundary conditions at each end, sinusoidally driven by an electromagnet (of adjustable frequency).

Unfortunately, this “illustration” is a *complete lie*. The transverse oscillations of the metal bar are governed by an equation which is not even *approximately* like (1); the dispersion relation looks nothing like (2); “free boundary conditions” look nothing like (3) and therefore it should not surprise you that the normal modes look nothing like (4).

Unfortunately, so inured are they to this sort of thing, that only *one* (out of 120!) students noticed that something was amiss in their experiment. “Hey,” he emailed Sonia, “Why is the $n=1$ mode absent?”

^{nd}-order wave equation, the transverse vibrations of the thin bar are governed by a 4

^{th}-order equation

The dispersion relation,
${\omega(k)}^2 = b^2 k^4$
admits both real and *pure-imaginary* wavenumbers. So the general standing-wave solution has the form (for real $k$)
$u(x,t) = [A_1 \cosh(k x)+A_2 \sinh(k x)+A_3 \cos(k x)+A_4 \sin(k x)]\cos(b k^2 t)$
“Free” boundary conditions for (6) are a *pair* of conditions at each boundary,
$\left.\frac{\partial^2 u}{{\partial x}^2}\right\vert_{x=0,L} = 0,\qquad \left.\frac{\partial^3 u}{{\partial x}^3}\right\vert_{x=0,L} = 0$
Imposing the boundary conditions at $x=0$ yields
$A_3=A_1,\quad A_4 =A_2$
To satisfy the boundary conditions at $x=L$ then requires
$\det\begin{pmatrix}\cosh(k L) - \cos(k L)&\sinh(k L) - \sin(k L)\\ \sinh(k L) + \sin(k L)& \cosh(k L) - \cos(k L)\end{pmatrix}=0$
or

which is nothing like (4). The first few solutions to (7) are $k L = 1.50562\pi,\, 2.49975\pi,\, 3.50001\pi$, and the lowest mode has a vague (and somewhat accidental) resemblance to the $n=2$ mode of (5).

Analyzing the solutions to (6) is very interesting, but arguably *way* more complicated than we ought to be doing for students still struggling to understand (1). But assigning them the task of studying the vibrating bar experimentally, and *telling* them that it’s governed by (1), is just a *complete* disservice.

What were the folks who designed the lab *thinking*?