Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Review: The Physics of Football

by Timothy Gay, Ph.D.

     A friend, knowing both interest in football and my vocational pursuit (as a teacher of Physics), gave me this book and has been a delightful addition to my life this summer.
     I was surprised at all the connections that the book had.  The author teaches Physics, has a Ph.D. in atomic physics and went to high school in New England where he played high school football.  The exclusive and renowned private high school they attended was not far from where I grew up.  One of his high school team mates was Bill Belichick wrote the forward to the book for his old high school team mate.   Bill Belichick, after a number of transitions, went on to coach the New England Patriots professional football team with huge success. This is a team I rooted for as a child (not far from where I lived as a child) and remain a fan of to this day.  Author Timothy Gay became a professor of Physics at the University of Nebraska and has taught courses focused on the Physics involved with football.  Next door to be lives a rabid Nebraska fan that has taken trips with his children to attend Nebraska games many hours away from our present home in Alabama.  Alabama, itself, is a well known hotbed of interest in the sport.  So all these connections made the book that much more interesting.
     The "Foreward" written by Bill Belichick is eloquent and focused.  One could hardly expect that a football coach could write with an awareness and eloquence about Physics even if some of the finer points may be subtle to the non physicist.  He writes:

"As the father of physics, Isaac Newton changed our understanding of the world.  His laboratory at Cambridge was a model of scholarly isolation and his dedication to his work was complete."     (pg vii)

     So in those two sentences he ties a legacy of greatness in physics to the dedication and focus of the the person who is great in that field.  This is the common lesson given by countless multitudes of coaches and it relates even to accomplishments in science.   That is the job of a coach.  To inspire effort, focus and dedication.  It also happens that Newton was a gifted intellect well ahead of his peers.  Anyone who has read his works (as I have) readily recognizes genius.
      It also helps if the player, or learner, is interested in the field of physics prior to learning it.  The job of inspiring is easier if the learner desires to converse with the text and the discipline being learned.  So that is what this book attempts to do.  Use the culturally elevated entertainment of football to illustrate concepts in Physics.  After reading this book it is apparent that I may need to surrender to using cultural entertainment, like football, to illustrate typical physics scenarios.
    In addition I appreciate the author pointing out the more one understands about anything the more one appreciates and enjoys viewing the event.  Understanding the physics, even if one does not understand the football.  Like knowing about the history or mathematics of art.
     The author does not shy away from simple mathematics.  Dr. Gay calculates forces and recognizes the third law that always acts between two players.  
      He also takes on the most difficult of ideas with a multitude of examples from real games.  "Newton's third law says that whenever two objects collide, no matter what their individual masses, no matter how fast they are going, they always exert the same amount of force on each other." pg 32
    The text also relates change in energy to work. And calculates the changes in energy and the product of force and time.  Dr. Gay runs through examples and relates to a number of situations where the energy of the player is key to the outcome of an event..
    Some of the ideas I have used in my classes (especially two dimensional motion of the well thrown or punted football).  Some advanced topics are also addressed though the author always avoids raising the level of the math beyond adding, multiplying or dividing!
    In "Blocking and Tackling" and "The Pit" he uses straight forward kinematics and dynamics and actually does some of the simple math as examples.  Nothing is more important than those topics in the text!
    In "The West Coast Offense Explained" he has particular expertise having played on the West Coast in college (Cal-Tech) getting his Physics degree.  Here he uses simple geometry and kinematics to clearly explain how the offense works.
   "Football in Flight", "Passing" and "Kicking" discusses the modeling and projection path of the football during the game in different situations.  The geometry is elegant, the math intricate and the result is a fuller understanding of what the "air game" is all about.  Timing is key and he explains this well.
    Now the most newly informative section for me was the "Waves in the Stadium" which is the last chapter in the book.  Impressive!  Oscillations, sound and decibels and energy all come down to have an impact on the fan experience and the game!  This is a rich section but, given that he is an atomic physicist, I am not surprised that he did not push it further (as he could have).


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Review: The Science of the Summer Games

This is a review of the book:
by Vincent Mallette

     Well if you have an interest in sports and you happen to have a both an interest and a profession related to Physics then this is the book for you!  I suppose that is why a friend gave this book to me!
     This is the quickest reading 300 page book you will ever do if you are interested in Olympic sports and science.  Full of tidbits and interesting information.  In fact it has information I am likely to repeat and describe for years to come. If you are looking for a rigorous mathematical treatment of the summer games then don't get this text.  If you want a resource to look up and read just prior to watching a favorite event then this is the text for you!
     This text discusses and describes 24 team and individual categories of events. These events include baseball, basketball, boxing, cycling, canoeing, cycling, discus throw, diving, fencing, equestrian events, hammer throw, sprints, long runs, pentathlon, tennis, water polo, gymnastics, javelin throw, jumps, pole vault, soccer, swimming and wrestling.  Emphasis is on historical data and with a general knowledge of the science involved in that event (that can have an impact on performance).  This is a lay reader oriented text!
     Tidbits of interest to some one like me:
   "Paradoxically if you throw a discuss into the wind it goes further! (pg 58)
   There is an integral formula described on pg 74 representing the "forward somersault with a right handed twist" (pg 74)
   There is a great table on pg 133 that details the acceleration of gravity relative to New York City (which in the United States is like the center of the universe!)
   "The human being is the only animal that can swim a mile, run five miles, and climb a tree." (pg 159)
   Finally a metric mistake that is not catastrophic!  This one got the athlete a Gold Medal!  "U.S. vaulter Bon Seagren almost missed out on the gold medal in 1968 becasue he thought 5.25 meters was lower than 17 feet 6.5 inches, and passed on the jump he should have taken." (pg 171)
   "The run is a controlled fall.  Your center of gravity is often well forward of your feet. If you don't believe it, "freeze" during a run.  You'll fall lat on your face." (pg 195)
   "In 1974 a sprinter named Ivory Crocket finally rant the 100 yard dash in 9 seconds but he was 68 years too late!  In 1906 Richard Perry Williams ran an accurately measured 100 yards in 9.0 seconds, time by 5 stop watches!" (pg 200)
   "A unique thing about the Olympics is that they embrace both the most efficent and least efficient forms of locomotion - bicycling and swimming respectively." (pg 203)
   for swimming: "shaving body hair does in fact give the swimmer and advantage.....to put a number on it, about a second per 100 meters" (pg 209-10)

   The author clearly points out that steroids and enhancement drugs do, in fact, have a huge impact on performance in every Olympic event.  The long term impact is catastrophic.  It was noted that Doctors in East Germany  "saw the liver damage the steroid cocktail had done to a sprinter Kertein Behrendt (but kept administering it).  Researchers in the west documented heart disease and sexual dysfunction as steroid side effects....the psychiatric effects may be more serious." (pg 237)
    So the final quote exactly captured my experience with regard to using performance enhancing drugs: "you may have a brilliant career, but is a wrecked life worth it? Better to pass up steroids and live to a ripe old age, with nothing worse form your athletic years than a bum knee!" (pg 137)  I can definitely identify with that last statement!


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