Professor of Wonder: Shannon Mayer | University of Portland

Professor of Wonder: Shannon Mayer

Physics Profession Shannon Mayer specializes in optics, with particular interest in the fields of quantum optics, laser spectroscopy, physics education, and science policy. She has published her work in technical journals, teaching journals, conference proceedings, and book chapters.

Virtual Classroom Reflection, Summer 2020:

From Awaken the Stars, published 2017:

Wonder as a verb is an action, an impulse: to think or speculate curiously; to be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe; to marvel. Like gravity, the question “I wonder?” is a force of nature. It is the force that has propelled scientists, theologians, and explorers alike on the unstoppable quest to discover the story of our world. It is in born and intrinsic, an inherent part of the fabric of human nature – as watching any small child learn will prove. But, again like gravity, which diminishes as you get further from the source of the gravitational pull, the force of wonder tends to diminish the further one gets from childhood. Other forces (fear, indolence, busyness, the prescriptiveness of formal education, etc.) conspire against wonder to weaken its power.

Consider wonder the noun: a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable. Wonder sneaks up on us in ways we aren’t expecting. An encounter with unexpected beauty, a glimpse of the astonishing cleverness of nature, serves to deepen our friendship with wonder. Like its cousin, joy, wonder is a signpost that hints of a deeper, more profound mystery in the story of our world.

Me, I was drawn to physics by a love of mathematics. As I often tell my students, mathematics is the language of science and to do science you need to learn to speak the language. For those who do speak the language, mathematics can be a purveyor of wonder; it possesses an artistic beauty akin to a beautiful painting or an intricate and melodic symphony. The fact that the universe is, at some level, describable by humans using beautiful mathematical equations is truly remarkable. Paul Dirac, a brilliant pioneer of quantum mechanics, believed that beauty was an essential feature of mathematical equations suited to the description of the physical world. Einstein once said that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. How do we happen to live in a universe we can describe using the language of mathematics? Why do humans have the desire, and more remarkably, the capacity to understand the mathematics that describes the world? These are all questions that bring me back to wonder.

Artists often have a favorite painting or sculpture that has become an intimate companion on their journey of wonder. For a musician, it may be a particular symphony that inspires awe. For me, a physicist, the masterpiece I most admire is a particularly beautiful equation. Its formal name is The Wave Equation and in the language of mathematic it looks like this:

A mathematician would call this a second-order linear, partial-differential equation, but don’t let the formidable title scare you away. Let me introduce you to a few of the beautiful features of this equation.

The wave equation is simultaneously elegant in its simplicity and profound in its versatility. It was first studied in the 1700s by Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert, who derived the equation to describe the vibration of a musical string. Since that humble beginning, the wave equation has been found to be equally at home in the cultured world of the concert music hall, among the bravado and swagger of big wave surfers in Hawaii, and out in the cold and empty space of space. Anywhere we encounter a wave, be it mechanical (vibrating guitar string), acoustic (the campus bell tower chiming), or electromagnetic (sunshine streaming in your window this morning), the wave equation is there. The fact that so many seemingly different phenomena can be accurately described by the same mathematical equation is, to me, part of its beauty.

In addition to its versatility, the wave equation has great intuition, so to speak; it has the insight to predict that when two waves interact with one another, they superimpose, or add together. This is consistent with our experience with waves. When we drop two pebbles into smooth water simultaneously and watch the ripples travel outward, meet each other, dance together for a moment, and then continue unperturbed on their individual ways, they are fulfilling the requirements of the wave equation. In contrast, particles, when they interact, scatter off one another like billiard balls, permanently altering the path of the other by their interaction.

The predictive ability of the waves equation is another of its impressive facets. In the mid-1800s, the physicist James Clerk Maxwell was puttering around with the mathematical equations known at the time to describe electrical and magnetic phenomena: circuits, magnets, and the like. What he found, if he combined these equations in just the right way, is that they predicted that electric and magnetic fields themselves could be described as waves. The wave equation applied to them too. The mathematics is the same, the application completely different. When Maxwell used his newly derived wave equation and computed the speed of these predicted traveling electric and magnetic waves, he discovered that they moved along at a speed eerily close to the accepted value of the speed of light. The remarkable beauty of his mathematics thus compelled im to propose that light itself was a form of traveling electric and magnetic fields. Maxwell’s proposal, and the simple, beautiful mathematics behind it, turned the world of physics upside down. The notion that light itse4lf was a traveling electromagnetic wave was revolutionary; it brought together the seemingly separate disciplines of electricity, magnetism, and optics, and foreshadowed some of the weird and wonderful aspects of the world of quantum mechanics.

Wonder, I think, captures the essence of everything that we are about in higher education and anywhere real teaching is taking place. My craft, as a physicist, is to pursue wonder. My charge, as a professor pf physics, is to empower students to become wonderers and, in the process of wondering itself, to make discoveries about our remarkable and curious world. My colleagues in the other disciplines likewise profess wonder in endless forms. Scientist or philosopher, theologian or poet, we all seek to use the tools of our particular trade to probe the mysteries of the universe. Encountering the universe with wonder is our common enterprise. Indeed, we are all professors of wonder, at a University of Wonder, and that is, well, wonderful.