Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Physics of Football

Late last year, I worked on a chapter for an engineering book. While it excited certain mathematical brain cells that have been understimulated since I left the computer programming world, it also reminded me of my greatest academic shortcoming. Dig into my transcripts past that perfect GPA and you'll find a dark secret: I managed to get through college without taking a physics class. At the time, I was determined not to take any science class that required lab time. Looking back, however, this left a rather large hole in my scientific background.

Last year also marked a sort of rediscovery of football. I used to watch it all the time when I lived at home, but with rare exceptions (a few Bears games and Super Bowls), I've ignored it for the past 15 years or so.

With those thoughts in mind, one can imagine that The Physics of Football: Discover the Science of Bone-Crunching Hits, Soaring Field Goals, and Awe-Inspiring Passes by Timothy Gay practically leapt off the shelf at Half Price Books, especially since it was only $2 on clearance. The idea for the book came from a series of short videos that Gay created at the University of Nebraska to simultaneously educate and entertain fans (which also led to some work with the NFL Films people).

For the most part, I enjoyed the book. Gay admits that physics cannot explain everything -- particularly that it can't predict who will win -- but he highlights certain aspects of the game where some physics background helps to understand what happens and why. For example, a kicked ball has a different range depending on whether it spirals or tumbles, as well as whether it's kicked at sea level or in Denver. In other words, air drag and air density affect the distance of a kick.

This book was much easier to read than I had feared. I understood more than I expected, although my eyes glazed over during Chapter 6 when Gay was explaining the forces acting on a passed football as it spirals. Without a physics background, I can't judge whether Gay hit all the important points, but he definitely gave me some new insights about football. I wish I had read this earlier in the season so I could apply them while watching a game. In general, I'd say anyone interested in a cerebral approach to football would enjoy reading The Physics of Football.

Current tally: 7 books finished, 7 books acquired

No comments: