The Physics of Football

I'm one of the 60 million people who don't regularly follow football, but who will be watching the Superbowl this Sunday. We are more than a group on Facebook, more than a cadre of caterers who feed chicken wings and vats of guacamole from Costco to guests who want to rearrange our furniture and our surround sound system. We are the curious and discriminating viewers who are not bogged down by the season's statistics or the list of injuries that would keep the Hospital for Special Surgery in business for the next 10 years.

Case in point: the thrilling game two weeks ago in Green Bay when the Giants defeated the Packers in overtime. Most of the "real fans" were focused on how the below zero temperatures were affecting the throwing arms of the quarterbacks. And the announcers were speculating that Tom Coughlin, the Giants' coach, might get frostbite as the camera zoomed in on his blood red cheeks. But not me. I kept wondering what was happening to the football. I knew that my tires lost pressure in extremely cold weather, would it be true for a football? And what about the pigskin itself?

I couldn't believe that no one was talking about the football! What was it like to kick it? Why did Lawrence Tynes miss those first two field goals? So I emailed one of the top theoretical physicists in the country, Brian Greene,whose work on string theory goes beyond the laces on a pigskin. Nevertheless, he confirmed my hunch and said that the pressure exerted by a gas, like air, is very much temperature dependent. Going from hot to cold could affect the pressure by 5-7%. So if that ball was in a locker room at, say, 75 degrees, and then brought out to the field at -2degrees, it could have lost significant pressure. Brian couldn't comment on the affect on the pigskin itself, but chances are it, too, suffered some changes.

They say that baseball is a game of inches. But when I watch a football game, I sometimes think it's a game of millimeters. So the air pressure in the ball had to affect the outcome of the game. In the postgame press conference, Tynes told reporters that it felt like kicking cardboard.

No one is going to have a problem with weather this coming Sunday. If you trust the weather reports, the teams will be playing in partly cloudy 60 degree weather. So you may think the real jeopardy will be in the all-or-nothing tackles that could cripple the players. Not necessarily. A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, shows that heart attacks and related diseases actually double during the World Cup. Researchers in Germany concluded that the Super Bowl sparks many of the same emotions and warns that people should be careful about getting enough sleep, not smoking, and not eating junk food. Tofu and cucumber sandwiches anyone?


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