APS News

The Physics of Football

ABC News Correspondent Bob Jamieson reports from the site of what may be the world's largest physics class. Photo by Randy Atkins
ABC News Correspondent Bob Jamieson reports from the site of what may be the world's largest physics class. Photo by Randy Atkins

Millions of viewers nationwide had the opportunity in November to learn what college football fans in Nebraska have been hearing all season about the physics of football, thanks to a special news report on the ABC network featuring Timothy Gay, a professor of physics at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln (UNL). The segment aired November 15th on ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. "Football is a manifestation of physics and it's something people can relate to," says Gay, who loves the strategy and tactics of the game as much as his chosen career. "It's physics in action. My main hope is that somehow I'll turn some kid onto physics or science in general."

A former tackle for the California Institute of Technology, Gay has been using college football to illustrate the laws of physics via a series of 45-second videotaped lessons presented on the two giant HuskerVision screens at UNL's Memorial Stadium. For example, an imperfect pass (i.e., wobbly, as opposed to a perfect spiral) will have insufficient force to overcome air resistance, resulting in a dragging effect, while a punt needs sufficient trajectory to attain the proper projectile motion. Helmets serve to distribute the force of a blow and lessen the impact to the players' heads, while the combined energy expended by an offensive line could lift an entire pickup truck about 10 yards into the air.

The idea for the series originated with the university's athletic department, which is in charge of half time programming for the giant screens, as a means of bringing academics and athletics together. Gay was quickly tapped for the job. He is already mulling possibilities for next year's series of mini halftime lectures, such as artificial turf vs. natural grass, or the sonic energy produced by a screaming crowd, "I have a passion for physics and I enjoy teaching all aspects of it," Gay told ABC correspondent Bob Jamieson. "That's the one thing besides football that I really love." For Gay's online lessons on the physics of football, see physics.unl.edu/football.html.

"This is an excellent example of how individual APS members can help bring physics to life for the public," said Barrett Ripin, APS Associate Executive Officier. When member Diandra Leslie-Pelecky notified APS of Gay's videoshows, Randy Atkins [atkins@aps.org], APS Media Coordinator, "pitched" the story to ABC giving it national attention.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette