Science Saturday: The Science Of Football

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Who would have thought a football player was a scientist!


Since football has a lot of action and a lot of objects flying around, there is a lot of science going on – particularly physics.  We’ll ignore Tom Brady and the ideal gas law. 

We’ll start with Newton’s laws of motion, particularly his first law of motion, which states that an object at rest will state at rest, and an object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an external force.  Basically, this would indicate that if a quarterback throws a ball, it will continue in that same direction and speed indefinitely… that is until we factor in gravity and air resistance.  Gravity is the force that pulls every object toward the center of the earth.  It basically limits how long the ball is going to remain in the air because it will force the ball back to the ground, thus limiting the distance it can travel.   The faster the ball is thrown, and the higher the launch angle, the further it will go and the longer it will be in the air. 

The ball will also experience air resistance, which is proportional to the square of the ball’s speed and its cross-sectional area.  The amount of spin in the ball actually doesn’t really affect this, but it does impart an additional energy into the ball which provides more accuracy.  It actually works much like a gyroscope, making it resistant to changing directions.

If the ball is spun on another axis, like an end over end punt, it will also have that additional energy which can make for the unpredictable nature of the football bouncing.  If it lands squarely on its point, to where the spin is negated, that energy will go into the bounce and make it bounce higher.  If it then lands such that the ground imparts more spin, it will not bounce as high and move further horizontally.

The physics of a ball in flight are why a spiral pass is easier to catch than an end over end tumbling kick.

Newton’s third law of motion stated that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  You can see this when a referee throws a flag…  I mean, when one player tackles another.  This law is also the conservation of momentum law.  So, if two players are the same size and running the same speed and hit each other head on, they will both stop as their momentum negates each other.  If one is running faster than the other, he will be slowed down but still move forward after the collision.  This is why even a very large player standing still can be moved backwards by a smaller person who is moving.

Another scientific principle at work in football is the Pythagorean Theorem.  You may be wondering how a triangle fits into the game.  The answer is in a defender determining the angle of pursuit needed to catch an offensive player.

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05/08/2022 5:05 pm

I love it Hoosier! Please make this into a series. Each of these points could be expanded on. Perhaps even using real plays we saw. The physics of Pat Mahomes magic throws would be especially interesting.

05/07/2022 2:27 pm

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05/07/2022 12:58 pm

Great science Saturday Hoosier….
Use it or lose it , that’s fact …

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