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Super Bowl Science

Super Bowl Science

The science of football is making headlines this week after New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick stepped into the scientific arena with his suggestion that the footballs his team played with – which may have helped them win their Super Bowl bid – were slightly deflated due to “atmospheric conditions" and not foul play. 

After offering up this explanation, Belichick was quick to admit that he’s “no scientist," something Bill Nye the Science Guy confirmed on ABC's "Good Morning America." Meanwhile, a materials scientist and a physicist discussed the merits of deflated footballs on NPR’s "All Things Considered."

"If you reduce the mass of the ball, which happens if you let a little bit of air out, the ball can decelerate faster when you throw it," said physicist John Eric Goff. 

Whatever the facts, the drama surrounding the so-called “deflate-gate” is generating a fair amount of not-so-scientific snickering across the country.

But how relevant to football is science? Below are ten videos from NBC Learn, created in partnership with the National Football League and the National Science Foundation, illustrating scientific theories that can be demonstrated on the gridiron. Each of the videos includes a link to lessons that can be used in the classroom as well. 

Pythagorean Theorem: Pythagoras' ancient theorem is used to explain how a defender can use the “angle of pursuit” to calculate the fastest route to tackle the ball carrier.   

Torque: Watch as linemen use force – or torque – to cause another player to spin out of position. By keeping their centers of mass low, players use torque to dominate the line of scrimmage.

Newton's Third Law of Motion: This video describes how momentum can work to either keep a player going or stop him cold. 

Newton's Second Law of Motion: Place kickers must contend with unbalanced forces that affect the flight of a football aimed toward the goal posts. 

Newton's First Law of Motion: The role inertia plays in carrying the ball.

Geometric Shapes: The accuracy of a quarterback’s pass starts with a prolate spheroid, which is the shape of a football. 

Kinematics: Position, velocity and acceleration are the components of motion that are critical to the success of a running back. 

Vectors: “Threading the needle” – or using vectors to calculate the speed and direction of a pass. 

Projectile Motion & Parabolas: The fourth down punt involves the science of projectile motion and parabolas.

Nutrition, Hydration & Health: Extreme exercise requires careful attention to hydration and nutrient replenishment. 

For those who prefer a more narrative form of explanation, an extensive article on the physics of football covers a lot of the same material. 

Finally, one of the more controversial topics to emerge in football in recent years is the growing awareness about traumatic brain injury (TBI). Even here, science is critical, as scientists work on technical improvements to helmets – improvements that could better protect players from injury.  

So grab the nachos and settle in to enjoy a scientific look at the game this Sunday!


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