Archive for Monday, October 4, 2004

Physics professor gets kick from applying laws to football

October 4, 2004


— A University of Nebraska-Lincoln physics professor has published a book that explains how the laws of nature interact with the game of football.

Tim Gay, 51, is the host of the popular fan feature called "Football Physics" shown on big screens at Nebraska home football games. Like the televised feature, Gay's new book, "Football Physics: The Science of the Game," explains how such phenomena as gravity, force and energy make dazzling passes, kicks and tackles possible.

The book, published by Rodale and now on shelves, helps readers relive some of football's most impressive moments from the viewpoint of scientist. It also gives fans of the game a fresh appreciation for the physical dynamics of fundamentals like blocking and tackling, running, kicking, passing, as well as the role played by padding, turf and the decibels of sound generated by the home crowd.

"The more you understand about football, the more you'll get out of watching or playing it," Gay said. "And to really appreciate the game of football at the deepest level, you need an understanding of the basic principles of physics underlying the action on the field."

Gay, who played football at the California Institute of Technology and earned his doctorate in atomic physics from the University of Chicago, has been at UNL since 1993.

In his book, Gay separates gridiron fact from fiction. For example, while the sound level on the field can reach more than an earsplitting 120 decibels, that sound effects only the psyche of the players -- not the trajectory of the ball.

But atmospheric density does influence the flight of the ball. Kicking long in Denver's mile-high stadium, where the air is thin, produces about a 5-yard advantage over kicking in a stadium near sea level, he explains.

The book reveals some other interesting science facts on the football field, including:

  • A Dick Butkus tackle packed the same force as an adult killer whale;
  • The energy exerted by players in a single game would lift a 1.5-ton pickup truck 1.4 miles in the air;
  • The law of vector addition allowed Joe Montana to connect with Dwight Clark for "The Catch" in the 1981 NFC Championship;
  • And the instantaneous force exerted on a kicked ball at the moment of impact can reach 1 ton.

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