Daily Archives: January 24, 2008

Field goal this prolate spheroid

It took much longer than I thought, but I finally finished reading Timothy Gay’s book The Physics of Football.



Gay is a physics professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  This book of his makes me wish I were better at physics.  The subject fascinates me much more than political science and economics (as an entity separate from an industry like the arts or agriculture), but at a certain level, my mind stops making sense of its principles.

The Physics of Football (formerly published as Football Physics),  is technical enough not to strike hardcore science scholars as fluffy, but is comprised of clearly defined prose so that average science folks don’t feel like complete idiots.  Being a fan (or participant) of football definitely helps.

There are many fascinating bits throughout the book, which consists of nine chapters, an introduction, an appendix, notes, acknowledgments, and an index.  The chapters are as follows: Blocking and Tackling; The Pit; The West Coast Offense Explained; The Football in Flight; Kicking the Football; Passing the Football; Gear; Turf; and Waves in the Stadium.

I’m really zonked right now, and my brain is having a hard time forming more coherent and articulate thoughts.  Thus, I shall leave you with a few enlightening excerpts from the book:

The NFL record for a successful field goal is 63 yards, held by both the New Orleans Saints’ Tom Dempsey (1970) and the Denver Broncos’ Jason Elam (1998)…(The goalpost was moved from the front to the back of the end zone in 1978 by the NFL, but the field-goal distance of record is still specified in terms of the actual distance between the kicking tee and the uprights)….There is one crucial difference between the two NFL record field goals: Dempsey’s was kicked in New Orleans, essentially at sea level, whereas Elam’s was kicked in the old Mile High Stadium…Dempsey had to kick the ball harder than Elam….Dempsey needed to kick the ball with a speed of 173 feet per second, or 118 miles per hour.  Elam would have had to launch his kick at 145 feet per second, or 99 miles per hour” (140-141).

Of all the varied skills required of players, passing is the most difficult to master.  This is one of the reasons quarterbacks get paid more than guards” (168).

“The shape of the football–that of a prolate spheroid, to use a math phrase, has three obvious but important implications.  First, it’s easier to throw than a sphere. …Second, the football is easier to carry than a soccer ball.  It can be tucked firmly between the ball carrier’s arm and rib cage in a manner that makes fumbling much less likely.  Finally, the football’s unique shape gives it an exceptionally erratic bounce that has unpredictable consequence over the course of a game” (203).

I sometimes tell my students that the history of physics goes hand in hand with humans’ never-ending quest to kill each other more efficiently.  That idea is illustrated quite well by the evolutionary development of football protective gear” (219).