Least Physics-y Physical Activity?

I’m running errands today, so here’s a quick post picking up a question from last week’s Olympic physics hangout: What sport involves the least physics?

One of the kids in the classes we were video chatting with asked that, and I really like the question, though it was a struggle to answer. It’s one of those questions that will ultimately be like an excessively-zoomed-in data graph– whatever the answer, everything starts with a pretty high baseline of physics content, just because there’s physics in everything.

For the Winter Olympics, my original suggestion was ski jumping, thinking it was mostly just projectile motion. The other physicist in the discussion, Lawrence Norris disagreed, pointing out that air resistance and aerodynamics play a significant role. We ended up waffling a bit, and saying some cross-country skiing sort of event, implicitly bracketing off the whole question of extracting energy from food, etc. as “not physics” (part of that unavoidable baseline). The only physics-y issues there are air drag and sliding friction, which is probably as good as you’re going to get.

In the summer Olympics, I’d probably go with shot put, which really is just projectile motion (again, bracketing off the question of extracting energy and converting it to motion). A shot put in flight is basically your classic spherical mass, and it’s so dense that the air resistance forces are pretty negligible. So it’s pretty much just projectile motion.

But I might be missing something. So, what physical sport (a qualifier meant to exclude competitive activities like chess or poker that have math content, but don’t involve moving things) has the least physics content?

(A good heuristic for “least physics content” might be “least likely to prompt a blog post by me or Rhett explaining the physics behind some aspect of the sport in question.”)

Comments

  1. #1 Brian
    February 25, 2014

    what about the Marathon? I mean, there’s body mechanics, but EVERYTHING has body mechanics. And there’s shoe-ground friction? but again, everything has that. What else is there?

  2. #2 cisko
    United States
    February 25, 2014

    It’s a different direction, but my first impulse is to go with judged sports like figure skating or diving, because the physics don’t really translate into measurable success. (A skater doesn’t win because she reaches the greatest height on her jumps or angular speed on her spins.)

    Aside from that, fencing would be my prime candidate. Plenty of physics going on, but most of it seems rather incidental to the success or failure of the participants.

    I’d also agree with Brian about distance running events. But then again there’d be some interesting analysis at the level of caloric efficiency that you could judge independent of the biology.

    Not really relevant, but I was surprised to see that rugby is back on the Olympic list as a medal sport in 2016, with 7-a-side rules.

  3. #3 Christopher Bohn
    United States
    February 25, 2014

    From an education perspective, shot put has the added advantage of being as close to a spherical cow without actually being a cow.

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    February 25, 2014

    I would say that the actual performance in figure skating or diving involves quite a bit of physics. The rampant corruption involved in the judging is a separate issue, and shouldn’t count against the physics-y nature of the activity, any more than being on the losing side of a basketball game negates the physics content of a jump shot.

    Rugby sevens in the Olympics ought to be interesting…

  5. #5 Markk
    February 25, 2014

    The Physics in shot put is before the release – the mechanics of the body motion to get the fastest speed of the hand and shot. I don’t know that the ranking you are proposing really makes sense – I can’t think of any two things where I could put one above another really.

  6. #6 Eric Lund
    February 25, 2014

    Figure skating is actually one of the more physics-intensive sports: it’s one of the few Olympic sports where conservation of angular momentum comes into play.

    It’s hard to pick a single least physics-y sport. Track events are probably close to the bottom, as are shot put and javelin throw. For winter sports, I’d go with downhill skiing (with cross-country you sometimes have to get up hills, and the choice of whether to rely on your momentum or herringbone up the hill can be crucial).

  7. #7 JenL
    February 25, 2014

    Does NASCAR count as a sport?

  8. #8 Chad Orzel
    February 25, 2014

    NASCAR counts, but it’s pretty physics-y. In fact, there’s a whole book on the Physics of NASCAR.

  9. #9 Dan L
    February 25, 2014

    Curling, I think. Go Canada!

    It’s not a strength thing, for the most part: anyone is strong enough to get the iron down there. Air drag is negligible. Stone/water/ice interface is physics, and there’s a little elastic collision thrown in at the end.

  10. #10 Chad Orzel
    February 26, 2014

    Curling actually involves a surprising amount of physics. There’s friction with the ice, angular momentum from the spin, collisions with the other rocks, thermodynamics in the sweeping (the whole idea is to change the texture of the ice by melting a little of it). Also, having gone to the open house at the Schenectady Curling Club, the sweeping is surprisingly difficult– you really need to bear down on the broom to have any effect, and moving it fast then becomes very challenging.

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