Astrophysics and music. At first glance, these two fields may appear to have nothing in common, but Aaron Mertz has managed to meld them quite harmoniously during his undergraduate career at the University.
Mertz, who will graduate today with a double major in physics and American Culture Studies and a minor in German, all in Arts & Sciences, has played the cello since elementary school. It’s a passion he has wholeheartedly pursued during his time at the University, despite rigorous academic demands.
The Palatine, Ill., native was a cellist in the Washington University Symphony Orchestra and several chamber orchestras, including the “Florence Trio” with his two best friends — James Wang and Sheena Chew. He also plays in a string quartet called “Quartet Aria,” which performs at campus receptions and St. Louis-area weddings.
“In one of my introductory physics courses, we studied sound, the various harmonics and overtones in simple models like strings and open pipes,” Mertz says. “I was able to go home and demonstrate some of those phenomena on my cello. It was particularly exciting for me to see that in action firsthand.”
“Aaron is the only student I can remember in my teaching career with whom I was able to discuss Christo’s The Gates in Central Park, 1950s models of nuclear physics and Native American basketry,” says Angela L. Miller, Ph.D., director of graduate studies in the Department of Art History and Archaeology in Arts & Sciences. “And his intellectual interests and curiosities are absolutely genuine. These various interests feed one another and fuel Aaron’s creative thinking.”
Although he has been playing cello since he was very young, Mertz didn’t discover his love for physics until high school.
“I’d always enjoyed mathematics, but what I loved about physics was that it could explain the inherent beauty in the world quantitatively,” he says.
At the University, Mertz spent time working in the Laboratory for Space Sciences with Thomas Bernatowicz, Ph.D., professor of physics in Arts & Sciences, using meteorites to study the composition of stars.
“Our solar system has a fairly uniform composition in terms of isotopes,” Mertz says. “For example, there are different types of carbon or different types of oxygen uniformly distributed throughout our solar system.
“In meteorites, there exist very small grains that have anomalous isotopic compositions. Because these don’t match the rest of our solar system, we know they could not have originated in our solar system but rather in stellar events that occurred before the birth of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago.
“So instead of using telescopes like astronomers would use to study stars, we use microscopes to analyze these very small portions of meteorites, actual stardust,” he adds.
To further hone his skills in physics and German, Mertz spent summer 2005 working in a lab at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Munich, Germany.
College of Arts & Sciences
“It was a great opportunity for me to combine my physics research with my study of the German language,” he says.
“Aaron Mertz has always amazed me not only with his intellectual ability but also with his enthusiasm for intellectual development,” says Peter Kastor, Ph.D., assistant professor of history and of American Culture Studies, both in Arts & Sciences. “The intellectual energy and collaborative spirit he has brought to his undergraduate work reflects a truly imaginative mind and a deep commitment to making a contribution to the University’s mission of creating a community of learning.”
When not studying stars or playing cello, Mertz found time to serve as a student representative to the Board of Trustees and as president of the ArtSci Council, the undergraduate student association of the College of Arts & Sciences.
“My student-colleagues and I have tried to enhance cultural and intellectual development on campus for students,” Mertz says, “in order to connect them with other students, with the faculty on campus and with some cultural highlights in the St. Louis area, such as the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, the art museum, the botanical garden — things that students might not take the initiative to encounter on their own.”
He came to WUSTL knowing he wanted to study physics, but “the University allowed me the flexibility to pursue serious work in the humanities and to continue my music even though I was not a music major.”
“I’ve made a wonderful group of friends and the faculty has been incredible to me,” he says. “Some of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had here have been outside the classroom with faculty who’ve been willing to push me beyond my limits and engage me in serious ways.”