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Two NIU professors explore the physics of the Summer Olympics

July 5, 2021

The summer Olympics are a chance for the whole world to celebrate the fastest, strongest, highest flying athletes and to unite in appreciation of their hard work and mastery. According to NIU Physics professors Jahred Adelman and Mike Eads, the Olympics also offers a crash course in physics as we explore why high jumpers cross the bar backwards, how Simone Biles flies so high and how soccer players score free kicks with so many players in the way.

On Wednesday, July 14, 2021, the next NIU STEM Café will help the audience prepare for the long-awaited 2020 Summer Olympics by offering a lively discussion of the physics of the Olympics. The online STEM Café begins at 6 p.m. and is free and open to the public. Registration and more information at go.niu.edu/Olympics.

Jahred Adelman

Associate Professor Jahred Adelman says, “There’s a huge amount of interesting physics and science that will take place during the summer Olympics. It can all be understood without using any complicated mathematics, and in most cases, without any math at all.”

Professor Mike Eads agrees, saying, “A big part of physics is trying to understand moving objects. In the Olympics, there are a lot of moving objects! Knowing some basic physics principles, such as forces and energy, can help to explain why athletes do the things they do in the various Olympic events.”

According to Adelman, the basic concepts of Newton’s Laws, conservation of energy and conservation of momentum can explain what happens when a diver jumps off the platform, when a gymnast pushes off the vault or when a soccer player kicks the ball. He says, “Thinking about sports from the perspective of a physicist can lead to surprising insights.”

Adelman and Eads are both particle physicists who study elementary particles such as the Higgs boson, the muon and neutrinos. While both focus much of their research on understanding matter and energy at the tiniest, subatomic level, Adelman and Eads say particle physics nonetheless has a foundation in older descriptions of the mechanics of larger objects.

Mike Eads

“Physics is all around us and is what we all use to better understand the world and our interactions with it,” Eads says. “Once you know what to look for, you’ll see examples of physics all around you, including in the Olympics. Newton’s laws help to explain a sprinter’s starting stance. Energy conservation helps explain why there is a lot of ‘spring’ in a diving board. Angular momentum conservation helps explain why divers and gymnasts change their body positions to ‘spin’ while they are in the air.”

“The physical laws describing everything taking place in the Tokyo Olympics are no different from those that explain everyday life, from driving a car to walking to work to taking the train,” Adelman adds. But the speakers hope the audience won’t take these basic laws of physics for granted. “The more we understand these rules, the more extraordinary and special they become,” Adelman says. “People may not know it, but they are already physicists! We all intuitively understand and use Newton’s Laws without even realizing it.”

Adelman and Eads share a love of sport, and they relish the chance to apply knowledge of physics to the sports we all love. “Thankfully, being good at a sport is not a requirement for understanding it!” Adelman says.

Northern Illinois University STEM Cafés are part of NIU STEAM and are designed to increase public awareness of the critical role that STEM fields play in our everyday lives. They are supported by Bayer Fund and Thermo Fisher Scientific. For more information, visit go.niu.edu/stemcafes or contact Judith Dymond, Ed.D., at 815-753-4751 or [email protected].