|photo credit Graham McBride|
Doppler effect problems in textbooks often involve trains and trumpeters. That's all great, but I want to demonstrate the Doppler effect in my classroom, in which I have neither train nor trumpet. Furthermore, when I've actually used a trumpeter playing a note out the window of my car, it's been hard to hear the effect -- I can't go much faster on the road here than 20 mph, and I'm not confident that my student trumpeter can maintain a constant pitch while turned sideways in the front seat.* I need something better.
* Band veterans probably are ready to interject here the ol' wisecrack about the definition of the "minor second" being two high school trumpet players attempting to play the same note.
My favorite Doppler effect demonstration involves twirling a speaker in a circle. You get the speaker to play a constant frequency, attach it to a string... then when the speaker is briefly traveling toward the listeners, the pitch increases noticeably, especially compared with the decreased pitch that happens less than a second later. The "wahh-wahh-wahh" two-toned pitch is easy for everyone to hear.
The problem I've always had with that demo is the physical setup. I attach a rather bulky frequency generator to a cannibalized speaker using alligator clips. If I'm not extra careful, the alligator clips fail, and the speaker goes flying.
Nowadays, I use my iphone or ipad as a frequency generator with either the "freqgen" app or the "tone generator" app. My question this morning was, how do I whirl my phone in a reasonably high-speed circle without the risk of breaking the phone? Tying string to the iphone wasn't getting me anywhere.
My Chinese-teaching colleague Scott Navitsky gave me the key suggestion: use an onion bag instead of string! I asked our dining services for an onion bag, and I thank Jim Robertson and Aimee Carver for providing me with one. I told the app to play a 600 Hz note, stuck the phone in the bag, twirled... and the warbling frequency was apparent to everyone nearby.