Making Sport of Physics

How close to perfect is Stephen Curry?

The Wall Street Journal asked me to analyze a bunch of Stephen Curry’s three-point shots.  Wow, was that fun!  Curry is about as pure a shooter as I’ve ever seen.  His motion is fluid and his release time is shorter than any other shooter I’ve analyzed.  More details may be found in the Wall Street Journal article here.  If you’ve not looked carefully at Curry’s shot, click here for a YouTube video.  The guy is smooth as silk!

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LC Women’s Soccer — National Champs!

Congratulations to the Lynchburg College women’s soccer team for capping a perfect 27-0 season with the Division III national championship.  My family was cheering on my college as we won in penalty kicks after scoreless soccer in regulation and two overtimes.  Way to go Hornets!

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Greatest reception ever?!?

If you did not see Odell Beckham Jr’s reception this past Sunday, check it out here.  I was asked to analyze the reception by the New York Times.  The story appeared in the Tuesday, 25 November 2014 edition of the paper and may be accessed here.  It is difficult to claim “greatest reception ever,” but it has to be in the top 10!  Beckham’s athleticism and frictional help from his gloves made for one awesome, jaw-dropping reception.  Even though the Giants lost the game, the reception will be remembered for a long time.

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Materials for Tomorrow 2014

I have been enjoying a wonderful time at the Materials for Tomorrow 2014 conference at Chalmers University of Technology in Göteborg, Sweden.  The conference opened on Tuesday, 4 November with a great session of talks that focused on materials science and applications to renewable energy.  By far, the best speaker of the day was Ada Yonath, who gave an inspiring talk about her seminal work with ribosomes.

My first contribution to the conference come today as I gave a talk during the session on Education in Sports Engineering.  I was thrilled to be invited to talk about the sports physics research work I’ve done at Lynchburg College.  My second invited talk will be tomorrow.  It focuses on the aerodynamics research I performed with Japanese colleagues at the end of 2013 and in the early part of 2014.  We were fortunate to see our work go viral just before the start of last summer’s World Cup in Brazil.  My colleague in Japan, Takeshi Asai, helped on that front when he compared Brazuca’s panel design to a ninja star or shuriken (click here for an example of that silliness).

What I love most about attending an international conference is the fact that science unites people from all over the world.  We are all insatiably curious about how the universe works.  Many of us are also interested in using a research area like sports to get young people interested in science.  Though not quite the problem it is in the US, many of my European colleagues are concerned about a lack of scientific literacy among the general populations in their countries.  There are too many issues needing urgent attention, like climate change and alternative energy options, that people need at least a basic understanding of what scientists do and how we learn about nature.

Finally, I am in awe of my new Swedish colleagues and their ability to speak English.  Even non-scientists in Sweden are capable of conversing with me in English.  How great would it be if we in the US thought it important enough to learn a second language, beginning in elementary school?  Sadly, we have a large fraction of our population that complains if Spanish appears on street signs.  I am so grateful to see English when I travel outside the US.  To the Swedes, I say, Tack!

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Soccer Work at The Allrounder

Bruce Berglund invited me to write a blog post on my soccer research for The Allrounder.  I urge you to check out The Allrounder.  Bruce has done a wonderful job putting it together.  The site focuses on sports and science.  A direct link to my post may be found here.  I discuss how Brazuca beat Jabulani in the competition for better World Cup ball.

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New Marathon Record — Under Two Hours is Coming!

Nearly a year to the day after the Berlin Marathon saw a new men’s record, Dennis Kimetto of Kenya established a brand new men’s record in this year’s Berlin Marathon. The 30-year-old completed the race in 2 h 02′ 57″, knocking 26″ off the old record set by fellow Kenyon Wilson Kipsang, and almost 03′ faster than the record at the time this century began. Kimetto completed the 42.194988-km (26.21875-mi) race with an average speed of 5.7198 m/s (20.591 kph or 12.795 mph). For those of you who like to run a mile, Kimetto averaged 04′ 41.36″ per mile. I can’t even run ONE mile that fast. Forget 26 miles!

Congratulations to Dennis Kimetto for setting a new marathon record. I hope he gets to enjoy it awhile, at least until next year’s Berlin Marathon. It won’t be too far in the future before a human being is able to complete a marathon in less than two hours.

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Doing Science is FUN!

Two months ago today, I wrote my last blog post for the 2014 Tour de France.  An intense two months of work on Tour de France modeling had just ended for me.  Intermingled among that work was my research on Brazuca, the World Cup soccer ball.  The media attention my colleagues in Japan and I received for our soccer research was fun and flattering, but by the end of July, I was spent.  I needed a break, and I took my first time off of the year with family as we vacationed in Michigan.  What I didn’t realize at the time was that my blog writing would be put on hold for so long.

I’ve had many inquiries about when my next blog post would appear.  Such inquiries are flattering because it’s always nice to know that someone actually cares about what I write in this space.  Believe me, I don’t take myself nearly so seriously as to think that what I write here when the mood strikes me is worthy of public consumption!

Now that I’ve had a break from blog writing, I feel ready to get back at it.  My college’s academic year is well underway, and I’m loving my work more than ever.  My introductory physics students have just been introduced to Newton’s way of thinking about the world, and energy is the next topic on the agenda.  My electricity and magnetism students have reacquainted themselves with special relativity so that they may gain a deep understanding of magnetism.  My statistical mechanics students have already seen how Boltzmann joined the world of the unseen with the one we experience in a beautiful equation that actually resides on his tombstone.  My research student and I have been learning more about friction as I prepare to be in England during the next academic year.  The beauty of my job is that I get to play with so many wonderful ideas and research the world, always learning new things and always nearly jumping out of my shoes each time one of my students thinks physics is cool.  It’s no wonder I run up the stairs to reach my office in the early morning hours of each day I work.

Doing science is so much fun.  It’s also so much more than that.  Helping young people to think critically and skeptically is such an important part of what I do.  The US has some of the best scientific minds and institutions in the world, yet we are plagued with scientific illiteracy in our population, and we are embarrassed by politicians who eschew advances in our scientific understanding of the world.  If you have not seen the climate science exchanges that took place a week or so ago between John Holdren, our President’s science adviser, and certain members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, I urge you to search the internet for articles and video.  I watched the exchanges not only as a scientist, but as a thinking citizen, and all I could feel while watching was shame and embarrassment.  One wonders if the goal of certain members of that committee is really to stultify science and its progress.  Kudos to John Holdren for his responses and not doing what many other scientists would have done, which is stare at the committee with jaw agape and wonder if there is any hope.

I’m actually full of hope.  I’ve got great kids in my classes who are interested in how the world works.  All it takes to improve one’s scientific literacy is the willingness to ask questions — and the willingness to work hard to find the answers.  Remember, too, that science isn’t about telling us things that we want to hear.  It’s about seeking how things actually are.  It’s much easier to simply believe something that makes us feel good than it is to invest the effort into figuring out what generations of scientists have actually come to accept.  The latter endeavor is SO much more fun!

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Kittel Wins Final Stage!

Marcel Kittel won his fourth stage of this year’s Tour de France with a great sprint to the finish line.  The image below shows Kittel just ahead of Alexander Kristoff (click on the image for a larger view).

With Tony Martin’s two stage wins and a stage win for André Greipel, German cyclists won 7 of the 21 stages.  Below is Kittel’s winning time and a comparison with our prediction.

  • Stage 21:  3h 20′ 50″ (actual), 3h 17′ 50″ (prediction), 03′ 00″ fast (-1.49% error)

We’ll take that error on such a hard stage to predict!  Kittel’s average speed is given below.

  • Stage 21:  11.41 m/s (41.08 kph or 25.53 mph)

Cyclists hit speeds around 63 kph (39 mph) a few times on the streets of Paris.  That’s faster than they would drive on those streets!  Seeing the cyclists loop around Paris made me want to return there for another visit.

The man of the hour is of course Vincenzo Nibali, winner of the 101st Tour de France.  There were times when he simply looked on a different plane of athleticism compared to his competitors.  I grabbed a screenshot as Nibali crossed the finish line (click on the image for a larger view).

I also grabbed an image of Niabli on the podium with Péraud and Pinot and the Arc de Triomphe in the background (click on the image for a larger view).

Nibali was the only cyclist to finish the entire Tour de France under 90 hours.  His winning time was 89h 59′ 06″.  With the 3 km removed from Stage 5 because of two dangerous cobblestone sections, the total distance biked came to 3660.5 km (2274.5 mi).  That gives Nibali an average speed of 11.30 m/s (40.68 kph or 25.28 mph).

It was a great Tour de France!  Stages were well planned, and there was plenty of cycling variety.  Kudos to Ji Cheng, the first Chinese cyclist to compete in the Tour de France.  There were 164 cyclists who finished this year’s Tour de France, and Cheng came in last.  But, he did what 34 cyclists who finished Stage 1 could not do; he finished the entire race.  He may have been just over six hours behind Nibali, but he will surely return to China amidst cheers.  Tour de France athletes are as good as it gets.  I couldn’t even finish a single stage of the Tour de France, much less come close to what Ji Cheng did in July.  Congratulations to all those who finished!

My research student, Chad Hobson, helped make modeling this year’s race a lot of fun.  We are happy with the improvements we made to our model.  Except for Stages 4, 5, and 6, where massive tailwinds made our predictions too slow (the rain-soaked and shortened Stage 5 at 7.79% was our worst error), all of our predictions came in under 5%, including five stages under 1%.  Predicting stage-winning times isn’t easy!

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Tony Martin Destroys Field in Time Trial!

There was only one cyclist I was interested in watching today:  Tony Martin.  He was a veritable machine on his bike in the individual time trail with his powerful legs and strong core moving him along French roads faster than anyone else.  Below is a comparison between Martin’s time and our prediction.

  • Stage 20:  1h 06′ 21″ (actual), 1h 07′ 55″ (prediction), 01′ 34″ slow (2.36% error)

Just ONE cyclist beat our prediction today!  Throw out Martin’s time and we miss the second-place time by only FIVE SECONDS.  But, we can’t do that!  We’ll take our error because watching Martin was watching time-trial cycling at its best.  The image below shows Martin at the start and at the finish (click on the image for a larger view).

Note that Martin wore the distinctive rainbow jersey that signifies that he is the racing world champion.  I snagged a few more images of Martin in today’s race.  The two below show his aerodynamic bike, streamlined helmet, and powerful body (click on the image for a larger view).

I love the rainbow-colored back wheel!  The image below shows Martin on a downhill (click on the image for a larger view).

Note how he is off the saddle and compressed.  He minimized his frontal area so as to reduce air drag.  You simply won’t find better time-trial technique!  Below is Martin’s impressive average speed.

  • Stage 20:  13.56 m/s (48.83 kph or 30.34 mph)

The 2014 Tour de France comes to a close tomorrow with a 137.5-km (85.44-mi) flat stage that will be mostly ceremonial.  Beginning in the commune of Évry, the stage finishes on the famous Champs-Élysées in Paris.  Below is our prediction.

  • Stage 21:  3h 17′ 50″ (prediction)

Vincenzo Nibali has this year’s race wrapped up.  He came in fourth today and extended his overall lead to nearly eight minutes.  Italy will celebrate a Tour de France champion, but France will have lots to celebrate tomorrow as well.  Jean-Christophe Péraud at 37 years old will take second place, and fellow Frenchman and white-jersey wearing 24-year-old Thibaut Pinot will be in third place.  Pinot won Stage 8 in the 2012 Tour de France.  He may be one of the favorites to win it all next year.

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Navardauskas Wins Rain-Soaked Stage 19!

Lithuanian Ramūnas Navardauskas led the field the entire way through the rain-soaked finish in Bergerac.  He held off a ferocious sprint in the final kilometer to take the stage by seven seconds.  I grabbed the image below as Navardauskas crossed the finish line (click on the image for a larger view).

Though it rained for much of the stage, speeds were not affected much.  As cyclists neared Bergerac, they were navigating some fairly narrow roads at speeds reported to be as high as 64 kph (40 mph).  That’s pretty fast on wet roads!  Earlier in the race, there were crosswinds and tailwinds reaching 25 kph (16 mph).  Winds and rain thus canceled each other a bit in this stage.  Below is a comparison between our prediction and Navardauskas’s winning time.

  • Stage 19:  4h 43′ 41″ (actual), 4h 46′ 18″ (prediction), 02′ 37″ slow (0.92% error)

That makes five stages for us with an error under 1%.  Navardauskas’s average speed is given below.

  • Stage 19:  12.25 m/s (44.10 kph or 27.40 mph)

Given all the rain and wind, that’s a great average speed!  Navardauskas was lucky to have missed a crash that happened just inside the magic 3-km (1.9-mi) mark.  The image below shows the crash (click on the image for a larger view).

Because the crash happened inside 3 km, riders did not lose much time, even if they could no longer compete for the stage win.

Tomorrow’s Stage 20 picks up in Bergerac.  The stage is the only time trial in this year’s Tour de France.  Moving north by northeast, the individual time trial finishes 54 km (33.6 mi) away in the commune of Périgueux.  Our prediction is given below.

  • Stage 20:  1h 07′ 55″ (prediction)

We hope to see dry roads and fast cyclists!

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