11 Ways Science Is Making Play Better

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From urology to physics, science is improving the way we play. Here’s how. 


In the olden days, surfing was relatively simple: Aspiring wave-riders grabbed their boards and went to the beach. If the waves were good, the waves were good. If they weren’t, they weren’t. Today’s surfers have the benefit of surf forecasting, a combination of meteorology and oceanography, to test the waters before they head to the coast. Surf forecasters use satellites, wave charts, and buoys to track storms, monitor ocean conditions, and predict the locations and times of the sweetest waves.


Travelers climbing Mount Everest have long depended on Nepalese porters for assistance and guidance. The porters’ agility and endurance on the grueling climb were long chalked up to acclimation: Having lived in the region and climbed the route since childhood, the porters are naturally better habituated to the mountain’s thin air. But scientists found a different source of the porters’ prowess: posture. Analysis of body position and weight distribution revealed that the Nepalese porters climb while bent over at the waist. This posture increases their muscular efficiency and oxygen use—both vital resources in the middle of a climb.


The right bowling ball can transform your game. For casual bowlers selecting a ball from the bowling alley’s collection, sports kinesiologists provide a number of tips. First, focus on grip. You shouldn’t have to squeeze to hang on to your ball; instead, your palm should lie flush with the ball’s surface. Next, consider the weight of your ball. Heavier isn’t always better—what matters is being able to control the ball. To test your pick, hold your arms out straight in front of you and ask a friend to put the ball in your hands. If you tip over, the ball is too heavy.


One tenth of a second can mean the difference between victory and defeat in the world of competitive skiing. To maximize efficiency, boost performance, and shave time off of each run, top-ranked ski teams employ an arsenal of scientific technologies and techniques: Skiers wear GPS transmitters to monitor their movement and speed in precise locations; they practice in wind tunnels, learning how to exploit aerodynamics; and they consult sports psychologists to elevate their mental game. Nutrition plans combined with daily blood and urine tests ensure the athletes are operating at peak capacity.


Understanding the spin of the ball is important in other games, but it’s vital for winning a game of table tennis. Table tennis balls are so light that the slightest air current can change their direction. Experts in fluid dynamics advise competitive table tennis players to read up on a phenomenon known as the Magnus effect. As a spinning ball moves through the air, the pressure difference between its two sides pulls on the ball, resulting in a curve. With the right touch, a player could curve a ball in any direction, surprising an opponent who expected a straight path.


Spending the night in the great outdoors can be, well, great, but there are some downsides: After sunset, the ground loses its stored heat and grows cold; any after-dark activities will need to be lit by a flashlight; and a tent provides protection from the elements, but it also blocks out any view of the night sky. New tent technology has solved all these problems. Solar panels on tent flaps can collect sunlight during the day and convert it into electricity, which is used to heat the tent floor and power built-in LED lights. Clear vinyl panels incorporated into the ceiling of a tent can keep a tent insulated while allowing its inhabitants an unobstructed view of the stars.


Designing a water slide is much more complicated than it sounds. The designers of the world’s tallest water slide knew they had to strike a balance between gravity and friction. Not enough gravity, and a rider would slow down. But without enough friction, the slightest bump could shoot a rider off the slide into the air. The final design was 17 stories tall and had a slope of 60 degrees, an angle that would rocket riders down the slide and into a second six-story hill at nearly 65 mph. At that speed, any error in calculation could be fatal, so one of the designers took the first plunge. To his great relief, the slide was safe.


Unlike sharks or barracudas, humans have not evolved to zip through the water. With our protruding features and lumpy limbs we are the opposite of sleek. But sometimes—as in international competitions—swimmers want to go fast, and science can help them do it. In pursuit of the fastest suit, swimwear companies consult experts in biomechanics, hydrodynamics, nanotechnology, aircraft engineering, and even sports psychology. The resulting space-age garments have been quite effective at streamlining a swimmer’s body—so effective, in fact, that some suits have been banned.


All by yourself on a trampoline, you might be great. But as soon as someone else climbs on, the height of each bounce plummets—unless you know how to game the system. Trampolining in tandem is essentially a transfer of energy. You can harness that energy, engineers say, with three tricks. First, time your touchdown on the trampoline surface so that it happens at the halfway point of the other person’s bounce. Second, if you’re lighter than your bounce buddy, make your first jump as high as possible. Third, bounce as close as you can to the other person without colliding.


Biking can be pretty hard on your bits. Cyclists won’t talk about it, but prolonged bike riding can lead to genital bruising, numbness, and even erectile dysfunction. The design of a traditional bike seat, or saddle, includes a tapered “nose” that sits between the rider’s legs. It’s this nose that puts pressure on a rider’s tender parts. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Occupational safety researchers designed a nose-less saddle for police officers on bike patrols. Before switching to the new seat, nearly three-quarters of the officers complained about numbness. After six months on the noseless saddle, that number was down to one-fifth. More than fifteen companies now sell noseless saddles for men and women.


Even the simplest playtime activities can be improved with a little scientific know-how. Some chemists spend their entire careers studying the structure and properties of bubbles, so it’s no surprise they’ve concocted the ultimate recipe. To make your own “super-bubble” solution at home, mix one part light corn syrup, two parts liquid detergent, and four parts glycerin. Adding glycerin and corn syrup give the bubbles strength and stretch, allowing them to bounce on smooth surfaces. The scientists recommend leaving your bubble solution to set for a few days before use. The mix is potent, the chemists warn: Super bubbles break with quite a bit of force, so keep them away from your face. And it’s best to blow super-bubbles outside—while the mixture is non-toxic, you don’t want to have to remove corn syrup from your carpet.

If you prefer driving to biking or swimming, you’re still in luck: With its tough new interior and technology to keep the fun going, the all-new Tacoma is your answer to a better getaway. Learn more at toyota.com/tacoma