The Ursinus Labyrinth: A Ringing Endorsement

The Ursinus labyrinth, which sits unobtrusively near the Kaleidoscope Performing Arts Center, was developed some years ago as an Exercise and Sport Science Summer Fellows project. The research, under Professor Laura Borsdorf, examined the restorative powers of walking such a maze.

The winding brick maze has taken on a life of its own: the local labyrinth is featured on the website Maths in the City as one of the site’s selections of places around the world based on mathematics. But the Ursinus labyrinth’s 44 concentric rings encircling a stone are not included for their impact on wellness.

It is all about the squeak.

It was discovered that standing in the center of the circle and clapping produces a squeaking noise similar to the sound of scuffing a sneaker on a basketball court. The website explains that this occurs as sound bounces off each bevel and returns the sound to the center. The phenomenon is called repetition pitch and the frequency can be predicted with geometry. Do the math… on the website.

Maths in the City, funded by the United Kingdom-based Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and managed by the Technology-Assisted Lifelong Learning unit of the University of Oxford Department for Continuing Education, features mathematical walking tours. The Ursinus labyrinth is in the good company of Oxford, the city of London, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Sydney Opera House, an ancient control tower in Cagliari, Italy, Epcot’s polyhedron, a bookshop’s parallelogram door in Canterbury, Kent, and rhombus-shaped windows in Milan.

Ursinus Admissions Counselor Logan Duffie, Class of 2011, says that when prospective students and their families walk by the labyrinth on tours, “people comment. When my friends visit, they get a kick out of standing in the middle and clapping. It definitely draws attention.”

The Ursinus labyrinth squeak was unknown when then-student researcher Laurie Barilotti DiRosa conducted a study in 1998 with a portable, canvas labyrinth on the Helfferich Hall gym floor, and tested its effects on volunteer walkers. She collected data on about 200 walkers on the 28-turn labyrinth.

DiRosa, now teaching health science at Rowan University, recalls that as she was working on her project, she did not anticipate the labyrinth would be a permanent fixture at Ursinus. “When I heard that they had installed one, I was thrilled,” says the 1999 alumna. “I think it is an excellent way to relieve some stress, and also an amazing piece of artwork. Having created one on canvas I can’t even imagine how difficult it was to install a permanent one.” Expanding on Barilotti’s study, Professors Laura Borsdorf (Exercise and Sports Science) and Catherine Chambliss (Psychology) collaborated on research to support the use of labyrinths as effective wellness tools.

The design, inspired from a labyrinth in France’s Chartres Cathedral, became a permanent campus fixture in 2006.

“I love that my project was able to be continued with other research projects and also be newsworthy for the school in many different ways” DiRosa says, noting that Professor Borsdorf’s mentoring on the original study influenced her career path.

The labyrinth also provided a continuing research topic for Dante DiMidio, Class of 2010, who not only did extensive research on the Ursinus labyrinth, but created a wiki page. After word of the squeak reverberated through the Computer Science and Physics departments, DiMidio’s advisor, Physics Professor Lew Riley, agreed that “mathematically solving the labyrinth would be a great topic for my Independent Learning Experience in Physics,” DiMidio recalls. He spent his senior year building the wiki page and writing a research paper which noted other sites around the world — and also on campus — which produced a similar effect. He presented his findings at the Celebration of Student Achievement, on site at the labyrinth. DiMidio said he still intends to publish a paper in a journal for acoustical studies.