Imaginary Syllabus: Science of Sports and Games

It's one of those days where none of the stuff I probably ought to be writing seems even slightly appealing, so instead I'm going to do something frivolous and morale-boosting, namely think out loud about an imaginary course. Despite being on sabbatical, I do still check my work email, and have caught the edges of a new round of arguments about whether we're providing enough "Gen Ed" science courses pitched at non-majors. The hardest part of this is always meeting the "science with lab" component, because those courses are pretty resource-instensive, and we have a limited set of them that we run through. Which has occasionally led me to speculate about what we could do to offer another science-with-lab course for non-majors.

The one semi-serious idea that's stuck comes from a joking tweet I made some time back, when I said I was going to invent a "physics of sports" class to justify making the college pay for me to go to the Sloan Sports Conference. Which, like a lot of good jokes, sort of stuck in the back of my head, and every now and then I run across something that I mentally add to the imaginary syllabus. Which sort of looks like this, in roughly the order that they'd go in:

Topic 1: Kinematics: Position, velocity, and acceleration, and the relation between them. Basics of video analysis using Tracker to look at things like parabolic motion of thrown objects, acceleration of sprinters, etc.

Labs: Make and analyze video of simple motions. Look at existing video to check physics, a la Rhett's Angry Birds stuff.

Topic 2: Momentum: Conservation of momentum in collisions of simple objects-- billiard balls, etc.

Labs: Video analysis of simple mostly-elastic collisions.

Topic 3: Energy: Get into it with deviations from ideal elastic collisions-- energy loss in bouncing balls, etc. Potential and kinetic energy, energy loss to thermal motion, etc.

Labs: Video analysis of motion with energy loss: bouncing balls slowing to a stop, projectiles with significant air resistance, etc.

Topic 4: Rotational Motion/ Angular Momentum: Start with energy in bouncing footballs, etc. Look at conservation of angular momentum in ice skaters, gymnasts, etc.

Labs: Video analysis of motion of spinning things.

Topic 5: Basic Probability and Statistics: Different types of averages, their pros and cons. Some discussion of uncertainties.

Labs: Flipping coins, rolling dice, etc.

Topic 6: More Advanced Statistics: Why do all these people on ESPN go on about "advanced metrics" all the time?

Labs: "Hot hand" experiment?

Topic 7: Final Project: some sort of student-chosen investigation to end the term. Either a pro sports incident that can be analyzed on video, or making a video of something that can be analyzed.

Typed out like that, this seems like a good deal of fun, but also a shitload of work. There are a whole host of reasons why this probably won't happen, of course, but it has served its basic mood-elevating purpose for the morning, so hooray for that. And if you have suggestions of topics to add, or grant funds you'd be willing to direct my way to actually do this, well, you know where the comments are...

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I did a Physics of Sports course as an honors seminar. The students were honors students majoring in something other than physics, and the course was supposed to be at a junior level. I covered the basic physics and then did lectures on a number of individual sports, including archery and sumo. It was a lot of fun.

If you want to get a bit of materials science in there, topics on how various protective equipment is made and tested, and how this is an evolving process. This could be driven by the current controversy over concussions and brain damage in football players. Now you've got a bit of biology, too!

Basic physics is good, but I'd recommend against limiting yourself to pure physics and cover some additional topics:
1. Mechanical Engineering: Drag and capability for heat transfer are two of the major limiting forces for a number of sports (and why you can ride a bike much harder than a cycle machine).
2. Biology: What is aerobic and anaerobic exercise? How much power can a human put out, and for how long?

You can be a physicist and black-box these to a degree (drag simply becomes another force...) but they really bear mention as they provide essential input and parameters to any kinesthetic model.

I highly recommend reading the book "Bicycling Science" by David Gordon Wilson.

That is an excellent concept. Another grew out of the book "How things work" concerning everyday machines. An example in your context would be gear ratios (bikes, cars) to match the engine (person) to the task.

Perfectly inelastic collisions are more entertaining during football (or rugby) season. They are also almost trivial to analyze in one dimension (none of that 2 equations in 2 unknowns business where the students feel compelled to memorize the elastic scattering formulas). But I agree that billiards is interesting.

Angular momentum is clearest if the person is in the air for a long time, like platform diving or aerials on skis.

Finally, I really like that you include statistics. That is a very important life skill, and you can use physics to get into topics like the reliability of "studies show".

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 18 May 2016 #permalink

One thing I'd like to see broken down and explained is the difference in causes and effects between "speed and power", as used in common parlance, for kayak paddle strokes. What happens between paddle and water? That and the efficient transmission of force from paddle to feet--including a pivoting seat (or lack thereof) other than to reduce shearing of the spine ergonomically.

Anyway, cool idea for a course! Maybe put it online.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 18 May 2016 #permalink