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Unveiling the physics of football

University of Nebraska physics Prof. Tim Gay has taken on his toughest assignment yet: teaching physics to a rowdy class of 77,000.

But he's had lots of help from an unlikely source: the Nebraska Cornhuskers football team. Every time a pass is thrown, a ball is kicked, or a player is tackled, Dr. Gay can point to another crowd-pleasing example of physics in action.

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And the crowd does seem to be pleased. This is the second year for Gay's videotaped, less-than-a-minute mini-lectures in physics. They appear on the 17-by-23-foot TV screen in Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., during the Huskers' home games there.

The lessons were Jeff Schmahl's idea. He's in charge of the giant HuskerVision screen. He went to Nebraska's physics department in 1998 to see if anyone there was interested in "physics for football fans."

Some people had accused professors of devoting too much time to research. Mr. Schmahl wanted to show that "we can complement each other. Athletes can show off the academic side," he says. "This shows we've got good teachers here."

Gay, who played tackle for the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), leaped at the chance. Here was a way to show everyone how his favorite subject related to their favorite team!

But, physics at a football game? How many self-respecting Husker fans would sit still for that? A lot. Husker fans seem ready to sit still for anything that relates to their beloved team. (Did you know that on every game day, Memorial Stadium becomes the second-largest "city" in Nebraska, population-wise? As a fan at a recent game explained to me in a whisper: "You see, there's just not much else to do here...." Nebraska has no front-rank pro-sports teams of any kind.)

When Gay comes on the stadium TV screen during a pause in the action on the field, the crowd goes from screaming to studious in seconds.

"That's one of the few times the crowd goes silent," says Dick Rimel, who has attended almost every Husker home game since the 1960s.

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GAY'S lessons range from the physics of punting [see story, this page] to how much energy the players use. If you could capture all the energy being expended by all the players on the field during the first second of a football game, it would be enough to hoist a pickup truck 30 feet in the air.

Facts like that get people's attention. And while 77,000-plus fans are focusing on the giant screen, Gay is focusing on them.

"I'm trying to figure out if they're bored," Gay says, "or if they're getting it, or if they're interested. I've really seen the gamut."

Fans loved the punting lesson, he says, but the one about how sound travels in a football stadium was probably too complex.

The punting lesson showed how the distance a punt travels depends on the speed of the ball and the angle at which it leaves the punter's foot. Gay calculated that the ball leaves punter Dan Hadenfeldt's foot at 90 feet per second -that's 61 miles per hour!

Not that Dan Hadenfeldt is very interested himself.

"Frankly, I don't even understand most of the stuff he talks about," Hadenfeldt says of Gay. The kicker's main concerns are how he drops the ball to kick it (that is, with the tip slightly angled down) and keeping it away from dangerous punt-returners.

Gay gives his physics lessons a better-than-passing grade. "There's a fine line between cheerleading and physics instruction," he notes. His task is to make the videos as engaging and as educational as possible. He hopes they get people in the stadium "thinking about physics in general," at least.

It's the same challenge for physics teachers everywhere these days.

"Physics had its golden era back during World War II and the Sputnik era," Gay says. Physicists were crucial to the war effort. The Soviet Union's 1957 launch of Sputnik (the first artificial earth-orbiting satellite) shocked the United States into promoting the sciences in school.

"Physicists didn't feel as though they had to justify what they were doing," Gay says. "It was obvious: They were helping national defense."

Now, he says, biologists are in the limelight and physics has taken a back seat.

"What I'm trying to do is let people know that physics is fun," Gay says. "Physics underlies everything we do."

But just because he's a professor doesn't mean he's figured out all the physics involved in football. Gay is stymied by how temperature affects how far a football will travel. Cold makes a football harder and stiff. A warm football is bouncier, softer. But how much farther, if at all, does a warm football travel than a cold one?

Gay also hasn't figured out how a quarterback or punter can throw or kick a football so that the tip of it follows the arc of its flight. But don't think Gay is always thinking about physics during a game.

When a tackler fails to bring down an opposing ball-carrier, "I don't yell out, 'You didn't use Newton's Third Law!' " Gay says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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