Physics are phun: Football fysicist

By Ben Hoffman

Physics is useful for more than just boring people to death.

This is the message espoused by Dr. Timothy Gay, a professor from the University of Nebraska. Dr. Gay has been touring around schools in the United States giving lectures on the physics of football in order to inform people and promote his new book, Football Physics.

Dr. Gay kicked off his first Canuck lecture at the University of Calgary with a talk about momentum, a guiding principle behind collisions. He set up a lead slab and a wood slab on foam cups, and dropped a heavy lead ball on both. To the surprise of people in the audience, the wood slab did more damage to the cups.

“When you get a big linebacker and a tiny running-back, they exert the same force on each other,” Dr. Gay rounded out his point.

The evening continued with more fun and props, including a helmet from his university, and melons.

“You know what this N stands for, don’t you?” He asked, pointing to the side of the helmet. “Knowledge.”

Dr. Gay entertained the audience with physics problems in football ranging from simple collision problems to difficult spin and trajectory problems with the path of the football through the air, always giving demonstrations of his points.

Although football makes for interesting sensational physics, Dr. Gay’s degree actually specializes in atomic physics.

“Sometimes I worry [about sensationalism],” he said. “Half of the lectures I give now are about football, and the other half are about atomic physics. In one semester I teach quantum mechanics, and in the other I teach freshman mechanics.”

His concern is well rooted, given that most of the physics in football is easier and less interesting classical mechanics. This doesn’t mean there isn’t any interesting physics in football, though.

“The one problem I want to figure out about football is the problem of how the ball flies.”

Dr. Gay feels that with the release of his new book, his series of presentations on football physics, including appearances at football games and in many American media, are almost over.

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