Physics is everywhere. Even an action as seemingly mundane as getting off the couch and walking to the kitchen for more Krispy Kremes and chocolate milk is full of complex physics. But it's in the world of sport where humans most emphatically push the limits placed on them by the laws of physics. In Gold Medal Physics, John Eric Goff examines the performances of some of the greatest athletes in history, dissecting their feats with an intricate array of equations and calculations.
Goff, a professor of physics at Lynchburg College (not to be confused with Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in the same city of Lynchburg, Virginia), obviously has a passion for his topic. He starts out each chapter with vivid description of an athlete's accomplishments, setting the stage for a detailed Newtonian analysis of a specific aspect of their sport.
In ten chapters he covers seven famous champions:
Greg Louganis - four time Olympic diving gold medalist
Doug Flutie - Heisman Award winner from Boston College
Lance Armstrong - seven time Tour de France winner
Katarina Witt - two time Olympic figure skating gold medalist
Bob Beamon - 1968 Olympic long jump gold medalist
Al Oerter - four time Olympic discus gold medalist
David Beckham - greatest British soccer player of all time
In addition, he discusses "The Play" that ended the football game between Stanford and UC-Berkeley on November 20, 1982 and explores the finer points of sumo.
In just two hundred pages, Goff covers a host of physics concepts, including friction, torque, drag, lift, angular momentum, centripetal force and many others. He discusses how Beckham performs a free kick in four dimensions, why discus throws would be shorter in a vacuum and how a high jumper clears the bar even though her center of gravity goes under it. His mathematical maneuvers are creatively conjured, meticulously explained and passionately extrapolated. The professor clearly loves his work and his book conveys this well and has me convinced that he must be a very popular teacher in Lynchburg.
I had a fun time reading this book, but at times Goff's calculations put my cerebral cortex into difficulty, despite my years of college physics and calculus. Granted, some of the neuronal connections I was calling on were quite rusty, but it's important to recognize that Goff doesn't shy away from some pretty complicated mathematics. I think that a reader without much math background can still learn a lot from this book, but they might find themselves wanting to skip some of the hard core bits.
With remarkably concise and entertaining prose, Gold Medal Physics covers a whole semester of physics concepts and left me wanting to read more. I'm sure the professor would have plenty to say about the exploits of Lindsey Vonn, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. I figure he should be able to come out with a new edition every four years.
Olympics fans may also enjoy this book - entirely free of equations: Rome 1960.
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