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The math behind the madness
By Steven Martinovich
It's hard not to marvel at a perfectly thrown pass by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady or the power and speed displayed by Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis. Although football is decried by many as sport played by unthinking brutes for the unrefined, fans know there is sophistication to the game that is belied by the violence it proudly wears and sells itself with. It is a sport with an underlying complexity that a physicist should, and at least in one case does, love.
There may be no one better to explain the physics of football then Dr. Timothy Gay of the University of Nebraska. It's not often you get someone with a doctorate in atomic physics who also happens to be a former collegiate football player. Both fun and enlightening, Football Physics: The Science of the Game is Gay's successful attempt to explain some basic physics to football fans, and some football to physics fans.
It might appear to be overkill to study football by utilizing physics, but the game is a perfect real world laboratory to illustrate the science's theories. "Physics is the science that describes nature at its most fundamental level. It deals with forces, matter, and energy and the interactions between them," writes Gay, a definition that with some minor changes could easily describe your average football game. Like the world around us, a great deal of football can be explained with mathematics.
Unless you're willing to brave an encounter yourself, it's only with mathematics that one can comprehend, for example, the tremendous forces that are unleashed when one player tackles another. Using basic Newtonian physics, Gay illustrates that Hall of Fame Chicago Bears middle linebacker Dick Butkus could hit an unfortunate running back with 1,150 pounds of force, or as Gay says, the weight of a small adult killer whale, justifying the game's reputation as a contact sport. The six man offensive line can put out an incredible 6.8 horsepower in the half-second after the ball is snapped. During the course of a game, both teams put out enough energy to lift a 1.5 ton pick-up truck 1.4 miles high.
Of course, football is more than just large men colliding with each other. Gay also explores the science behind passing -- with special emphasis on the West Coast Offense, kicking and what happens while the football is in flight. He easily disproves the commonly held belief that humidity reduces the range of a kicked ball and shows how altitude - at least when games are held in Denver -- can help a kicker pad his numbers. Gay marshals a number of aids to illustrate his points including charts, diagrams and pictures to help the reader translate theory into reality.
Gay wraps up Football Physics with chapters devoted to the game's equipment, including an insightful section on how turf affects the game. Natural grass is compared to the various types of artificial turf and he shows, through simple calculation, why certain types of injuries such as "turf toe" are more common on the latter. Without helmets and pads a football game would quickly turn into a bloodbath and Gay explains how that equipment protects the hulking players from injury and death.
Learning about the physics in football probably won't give you any earth shattering insights into the game but with Football Physics Gay does accomplish making physics far easier to understand and explaining how and why things work on the gridiron. It's also a far more interesting way of learning about tedious things like vectors, Cartesian grids and abstract theories which are inflicted upon millions of high school students every year. If you take anything away from Football Physics it may be the notion that football players are, in effect, the world's most experienced applied physicists.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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