Sports Science: Football

The fourth Thursday in November is the perfect time to spend time with family, eat some home-cooked comfort food, and watch grown men throw around an inflated pig bladder.

That’s right, folks; the world’s first American football was actually an inflated pig bladder, hence the nickname “pigskin.” Don’t worry, modern footballs are made of leather or vulcanized rubber, but the shape of a football remains the same as it’s ever been, lending itself to an interesting discussion of physics.

My sophomore year of college at Washington University in St. Louis, my physics professor’s lecture the week of Thanksgiving featured two balls, a red rubber kickball and an American football. She asked us to predict how the balls would bounce. The spherical kickball was easy; the American football was not.

Football shape

The ovoid shape combined with the two sharp points at each end mean that the ball can bounce in just about any direction at any angle depending on its orientation as it is falling and what part of the football makes contact with the ground. That’s why every football coach I ever had drilled us on just falling on the ball instead of trying to catch it or scoop it up; it is extraordinarily difficult to predict just which way the ball will bounce! These bounces often manifest on plays when a bouncing ball is live, like a fumble, an onside kick or following a punt.

As the game evolved, so did the football itself. As you can imagine, inflating animal bladders can be inconsistent; now, the NFL football is standardized at about 11 inches long from tip to tip and a circumference of about 28 inches around the center. Those bladders could also be difficult to grip, so the modern football has a coarse, pebbled texture as well as white laces in the center.



Because of its shape, the football cuts through the air most easily when spinning around its longest axis, called a spiral. This spiral minimizes air resistance and allows the ball to move in a more predictable parabolic motion.

A common misconception is that the spiral motion allows the ball to travel farther, but this idea falls apart with basic physics. When a ball is initially thrown, there is a set quantity of total energy in the system. That set amount cannot be increased or decreased, just changed from one form to another according to the Law of Conservation of Energy. The spinning motion of a football in the air requires kinetic energy, so every Joule of kinetic energy required to keep the ball spinning is less energy dedicated to the football’s motion.

Instead, the spiral is important because of a concept called angular momentum. A spinning football behaves like a gyroscope; a ball will maintain roughly the same orientation while travelling. This makes the football’s movement from point to point easier to track and predict for a player.step0So when tossing around the ol’ pigskin Thanksgiving Day, make sure you grip the ball with the laces as you throw! What works best for me is to put my middle finger, ring finger and pinkie finger on alternating laces at the front of the ball (as pictured above).

When throwing a football, it is important to generate the force for the ball from your legs. If you are right-handed like me, stand sideways with your right leg behind you. Push off against the ground with your back leg and turn your body to throw as you do so. Bring the football backwards and then forwards over your shoulder, allowing the ball to roll off of your fingers straight. No need for any wrist twisting, as the ball should naturally move in a spiral. (See proper form below.)step1Step one: feet shoulder width apart, hands meet on the ball.step2Step two: weight on your back foot, bring the ball back, wrist out.step3

Step three: throw the ball, wrist in. Allow the ball to roll off of your fingers, but keep your wrist straight and stable. Release the ball over your shoulder. Remember, it’s not a baseball. step4Step four: follow through after the release.

Whether you’re facing the New Orleans Saints or the neighbors across the street, the principles of physics are crucial to your football team coming out on top. May the forces be with you! Happy Thanksgiving!

A Young Museum Fan Gives a Lecture on Energy

One of the hardest things in the world is trying to convince people that energy education and energy literacy is important. Energy and its use drive the global economy. There is a direct correlation between energy use and happiness. (And, quite frankly, I like having warm showers in the winter.)

When you approach people about energy education most of them say the subject is too complex. That it is too hard. Both of which are untrue and here’s why:

This is what happens when you have a passion about education. You make things happen. Thank you Olllie!


STEM & GEMS: BP financial analyst Lyda Marie T. Paragoso tells girls to stay STEM curious

Editor’s Note: As part of our annual GEMS (Girls Exploring Math and Science) program, we conduct interviews with women who have pursued careers in science, technology, engineering, or math. This week, we’re featuring Lyda Marie T. Paragoso, Financial Analyst for BP’s Gulf of Mexico Operations Budgeting & Forecasting.

HMNS: How old were you when you first become interested in science, technology, engineering, and/or math?
Paragoso: I was five years old when I first became interested in science, technology, engineering and math.

HMNS: Was there a specific person or event that inspired you when you were younger?
Paragoso: My parents and PBS inspired me when I was younger. My brother and I had a Popular Science subscription, and we always watched this PBS show called 3-2-1 Contact, which was an American science education show and taught scientific principles and their applications.

HMNS: What was your favorite project when you were in school?
Paragoso: In 5th grade, I made a 3-D model of the kidney organ which won an award and was displayed at the library of my elementary school. I also really enjoyed my sugar crystals science project, and in 8th grade for my Honors Earth Science project, I made a video acting as a weather forecaster using my homemade weather map.

HMNS: What is your current job? How does this relate to science, technology, engineering, and/or math?
My current job deals more with math; I interface a great deal with engineering and technology. Specifically, I’m currently a Financial Analyst at BP Gulf of Mexico Operations on the Budgeting & Forecasting team. I deal with a lot of financial data to create performance reports, analyze operations metrics and key performance indicators, and present them to the Operations Leadership Team and to the VP of Operations in order to formulate better financial forecasts and formulate more robust operations budgets.

HMNS: What’s the best part of your job?
Paragoso: The best part of my job is that I get to interface with many engineers, project managers, and other financial folks to better understand the BP oil and gas business in the Gulf of Mexico.

HMNS: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Paragoso: In my spare time, I enjoy traveling, cooking, playing the guitar and piano, people watching, training in Bujinkan Ninjutsu (I’m a first degree black belt), and going to the theater and movies. When time permits, I also like to volunteer for the Empowering Amputees organization, The Ronald McDonald House, and Notre Dame Catholic Church (my local church).

HMNS: What advice would you give to girls interested in pursuing a STEM career?
Paragoso: Stay curious, focused and determined. Be open to opportunities that will get you challenged and involved.

HMNS: Why do you think it’s important for girls to have access to an event like GEMS?
Paragoso: It is very important for girls to have access to an event like GEMS because it is a source of inspiration and a way to feed that curiosity and hunger for knowledge in science, technology, engineering and math.

HMNS: Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.
I’m an amputee and a cancer survivor (lost my left leg when I was 10 years old due to bone cancer, also known as osteosarcoma).

Biography of Lyda Marie T. Paragoso:
Lyda Marie T. Paragoso is currently a Financial Analyst for Gulf of Mexico (GoM) Operations Finance Budgeting & Forecasting team in support of the Discipline Capability organization, Logistics organization, VP of Operations and overall performance management across the Operations Budgeting & Forecasting teams within Gulf of Mexico Operations.

Lyda’s prior role was Performance Analyst in GoM Logistics where she was responsible for the monthly quarterly performance reports (QPRs) for each of the Gulf of Mexico production assets. She joined BP in 2004 and has held a variety of Financial Analyst roles in both North America Gas and Gulf of Mexico.

Prior to BP, she was an Assistant to the Controller at the University of St. Thomas and Tax Associate/Consultant at Arthur Andersen, LLP. Lyda has a BBA/MBA in Accounting/Finance from the University of St. Thomas in Houston.


Science & The Simpsons, Part II: What does the future of energy hold?

Editor’s note: In our last post, we left off with Radioactive Man battling The Fossil Fuel Four, an episode of The Simpsons where the show personifies all major aspects for retrieving and releasing energy. Nuclear energy (fission) is represented by Radioactive Man, and his sidekicks Solar Citizen and Wind Lad represent solar and wind power respectively. In this episode, they face their nemeses: a rough group of villains who call themselves The Fossil Fuel Four. They’re made up of King Coal, Petroleumsaurus Rex, Charcoal Briquette, and the Fracker. Through their battle, we see the struggle between sustainable resources and fossil fuels.

Will climate change continue unabated? What will happen to Radioactive Man now as he battles The Fossil Fuel Four? Will he defeat his foes — or is it too late? 

The world’s first fission nuclear reactor was built in Chicago in 1942. Touted by scientists as the energy of the future, some believed that electricity produced in this manner would be so safe, plentiful and inexpensive that companies would no longer have to monitor usage.

But things haven’t quite panned out that way.

While there was a veritable boom in the construction of nuclear plants in the 1960s and 1970s, some very high profile setbacks (such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima) have cast serious doubts about safety in the mind of the public. In response to Fukushima specifically, Germany intends to shut down all of its nuclear reactors within the decade, and Italy has banned nuclear power within its borders.

It remains, however, that nuclear energy has resulted in fewer deaths per unit of energy created than all other major sources of energy. Many scientists are still holding out hope for the development of nuclear fusion technology, which would be much more stable, secure, create more energy per unit, and not produce dangerous nuclear waste. This could be an economically viable option by 2050.

In the meantime, proponents of nuclear energy insist that the complete lack of carbon emissions from nuclear power plants should be a huge incentive for its use and maintain that it is a sustainable, safe method for the production of energy.

Additional sustainable energy options include solar and wind power (also hydropower, but since The Simpsons omitted it I will, in this case, refrain from delving into it further). Odd as it may seem, wind and solar power both capture energy from the same source – the sun. While solar power seeks to capture energy directly from the sun’s rays, wind power capitalizes on the fact that the sun’s energy heats the earth unevenly, creating wind currents (technically, even fossil fuels release energy from the sun, since that energy supported the life of the now fossilized organisms).

In the past few decades, these two processes of capturing energy and converting energy from the sun to electricity have grown by leaps and bounds. And while it’s still a small portion of total energy creation on a global scale, it seems to be one of the most promising ways in which we can create a truly sustainable energy environment for years to come.

Solar technology is generally categorized as either passive or active, depending on the method in which the sun’s energy is captured and converted for human use. Photovoltaic panels and solar thermal collectors are examples of active solar technology, while designing spaces to naturally circulate air and the selection of materials with light dispersing abilities are examples of passive solar technology.

Wind power uses airflows to run wind turbines. Harnessing wind for its energy has been a viable technology for millennia, but was (until recently) used to generate mechanical power (like using sails on ships), rather than electricity. As the wind blows, it turns the turbine to generate electricity. The greater the wind speed and strength, the more efficient this process becomes. This is part of why offshore turbines are becoming popular, since wind can be up to 90 percent stronger and occur more regularly out at sea than on land.

As you can see, this is a very exciting time for energy science with a lot of innovation going on. New technologies are being explored every day — from new methods of extracting fossil fuels from the Earth’s crust to new models and applications for nuclear, solar and wind energy production.

But the goal for all of this innovation is really the same: powering the future. So let’s revisit this idea of Radioactive Man and The Fossil Fuel Four.

Instead of The Fossils Fuel Four being evil, they and Radioactive Man should be the elders in the Energy League — a group of superheroes mentoring the new heroes in the league such as Citizen Solar, Wind Lad, Grid Smart, and Tidal Ti.  The Energy League should lead the fight against Baron Blackout and his cohorts, Social Disruption and the twins Ignorance and Want (OK, they’re Dickens characters, but wouldn’t they make great super-villains too?).

Let’s hope.