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

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture …

Apollo 11 - David Whitehouse *****

The problem with doing a book about the Apollo programme is that it's hard to find something that hasn't been said before - but with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing just weeks away, the publication of this elegant book is extremely timely, and science-reporting veteran David Whitehouse manages to make the story feel fresh, even if you're one of the just 20 per cent of the world population who were alive on the remarkable day in 1969.

Although he has worked a lot with New Scientist, Whitehouse was for many years a TV journalist, and that comes through in his impressively engaging prose as he takes us back to the origins of the US/USSR space race that would lead to the moon landing. He passes through the wartime aspects relatively quickly, but once the two superpowers are flexing their space technology muscles, Whitehouse achieves a near perfect balance between the far less-heard USSR side of the story and the US. This is probably the best bit of the whole bo…