FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 02/16/2010

It’s More Than Just a Swing

February 10, 2010                               Volume 3 Issue 3
 . . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .

By David Lee

Most golfers in New England are probably not thinking about their swings during February. But this is the month when Golf Digest publishes its ‘hot list’ in what’s become known as The Equipment Issue, an issue which sells about six million copies. Why? Because it includes crucial details about the newest irons, drivers, wedges, putters, hybrids, and woods.

What it doesn’t mention—at least overtly—is the secret behind the improvements: physics. But for the third year in a row I’ve worked with a team of students for this issue, analyzing the dynamic and static mass properties of new drivers sent to us from all the major club manufacturers. In the fall, we receive the clubs and measure quantities like the Center of Gravity, the Moment of Inertia tensor, the Characteristic Time, and so on. [view Golf Digest "hot list" panel--scroll down for Dr. Lee]

Much of the instrumentation we use comes right out of rocket science (the satellite industry), and the data are analyzed in an attempt to quantify several aspects of the performance of clubs. No joke, our measurements are combined with extensive testing that uses Doppler radar tracking of balls hit with the new clubs by robots. A three-day technical summit is then convened as the editors gamely attempt to evaluate the technological aspects of this 21st century version of the game.

But our observations offer much more than information about which club will lead to a better swing. They show the power of physics, especially to the next generation of scientists.

From the minuscule quarks inside a proton to the gigantic clusters of galaxies in the universe and even the dynamics of a golf club, we live in a world of physics. If you want to learn about black holes, quantum computers, invisibility producing cloaking devices (think Harry Potter), or just how a digital camera works, a physicist could provide the answer. The tools our world needs to feed the hungry or heal the sick make use of techniques and understanding derived from physics.

It’s not easy stuff though. Big solutions—even better golf clubs—involve a lot of time, mathematics, experimentation, computers, and frankly, inspiration. That’s not always an easy sell, especially when we consider that the U.S. spends more per student on education than only two other countries, and yet American high school science and math students rank 23rd and 32nd among their 57 international peers.

Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman recently told a group of presidents from independent colleges that, “American scientific progress has depended upon the young, whose energy, curiosity, and adaptability have made it the envy of the world  ... And yet students who have limped through science and mathematics with many a weary groan have little incentive to major in these subjects when they enter college, and many will even shy away from courses geared to the non-scientist.”

So how can we inspire more students to enter the physical sciences? At a time when our lives are forever changing because of scientific and technological progress, how can we help young women and men—and the general public—to see the benefits and impact a career in physics can offer?

Golf helps. So do other hands-on experiences that reveal how physics underpins the natural and synthetic world around us. How, for example, can we make a specific metal harder or tougher? Is there a way to produce some particular material using less energy-intensive techniques? How has Einstein’s theory of General Relativity allowed us to find our location anywhere in the world with an $80 GPS unit? What deep truths could we discover about the physical universe every time, say, a cell phone rings or an X-box is fired up to play Rock Band?

In other words, physics asks some of our deepest questions and demands some of our most creative solutions. It sustains some of our most successful technologies and showcases some of the most astounding beauty of the universe, even when we are examining ordinary, everyday things. Our ability to appreciate such things, to see the universal in the mundane, is a special gift. The physicist’s lens somehow brings into focus the widest of wide-angle views and the closest of zooms all at once.

Put simply, physics is about a lot more than golf, but your swing cares about it.

Dr. David S. Lee, professor of physics, is chair of the physics department, and the coordinator for the 3-2 engineering program at Gordon College. He, his wife Flora, and their six-year-old daughter Paloma live in Wenham, MA.


David Lee