Skip to main content

An Introduction to the Physics of Sport – Vassilios McInnes Spathopoulos ***

This short title may have been self published, but it has been well edited and comes across as a professional piece of writing. The only issue I have with it is whether or not it manages to cross the divide from textbook to popular science.
The topic is an interesting one – looking a how physics comes into play (see what I did there – ‘into play’) in sport. Personally I have zero interest in sport itself – I would rather watch paint dry than be a spectator at a sporting event or watch it on TV – yet there still is some interesting stuff to be had here.
It is, as some sporting commentator once nearly said, a book of three halves. It opens very strongly, with some excellent material on the way people accelerate, comparing a runner with a car or a plane (people do better for a very short while). Similarly, as I had no idea about the Magnus force that enables a spinning ball to curve (although I had used it often enough in table tennis, and inevitably heard of it a la ‘Bend it like Beckham’), it was fascinating to find out more about this.
In the centre section of the book, which has a lot of detail about rotating objects and flying objects, frankly my attention wained. It was a bit snooze inducing. But then things picked up again a lot at the end with another truly fascinating section on how environmental conditions can influence performance. I had no idea, for example, that wind speed is very tightly restricted in running races, but in, say, discus where it has potentially much more effect, it isn’t taken into consideration. This was both of interest and strongly confirmed my view that all competitive sport is totally arbitrary and meaningless.
As far as the way the book is written, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. The author clearly intends to make the subject approachable, but can’t help but fall into classic academic writing mode, often flinging out a collection of facts rather than presenting us with a narrative that makes the topic approachable.
Although some of the equations are useful, there are too many – and where they are used we also have the other typical error of the academic of using clumsy notation because it is the convention. The very first example makes this plain. We are told that speed is given by the equation V=S/t which to the general reader is baffling. It would have been much better to have said s=d/t so the letters correspond properly to the words ‘speed’, ‘distance’ and ‘time’ (and were all in the same case). I know there are reasons why in the physics big picture the particular letters in the book are used, but as popular science readers we don’t give a damn about that. Make it readable, not conventional!
Overall then, if you are interested in the physics that lies behind sport, this  short book will give you plenty of information – and if the topic interests you it is definitely worth getting hold of a copy – but I’d see it working best as an introductory primer for someone going into sports science rather than a true popular science book.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…