Science is all around us. Whether we’re throwing a football or going for a run, there’s always some scientific principle in action—though we may not realize it.
Understanding how your favorite games work isn’t just educational—it can also improve your ability to play. And you don’t have to be a scientist to understand some of the principles underlying your favorite activities. In fact, many of them rely on basic laws of physics and motion. Here are some of the scientific principles that drive 11 popular play activities.
1. WHAT MAKES A FOOTBALL SPIRAL
Because footballs are uniquely shaped, football players are able to throw them in what’s called a “spiral” pass: They throw the ball so that it spins around its long axis, which helps cut down on wind resistance and stabilizes the ball when it’s in the air. What makes some throws better than others comes down to how “tight” the spiral is—the faster the ball is spinning along its long axis, the less it wobbles, the less aerodynamic drag there is, and the farther it can go.
2. HOW A KAYAK FLOATS
It was the Ancient Greek philosopher Archimedes who discovered the principle behind floatation—and it’s actually pretty simple. Things float when they’re positively buoyant. That is, the weight of the object is the same as the weight of the water it’s displacing. So, for example, imagine putting a kayak into a completely full swimming pool. When you drop it in, the kayak will displace some of the water, and the pool will overflow; if you weighed the displaced water, you’d find that it weighs the same as the kayak. Weigh the kayak down with a few people, a couple coolers of soda, and some camping gear and you’ll find that the kayak sits lower in the water or even sinks.
3. HOW TO GET A STRIKE IN BOWLING
A lot of amateur bowlers try to hit the pins head on, aiming for dead center when they roll the ball. But while that might be the most intuitive strategy—and, let’s be honest, most of us are just hoping to avoid a gutter ball—it’s actually not the most effective. In fact, hitting the pins head on usually causes the ball to deflect away. The best spot to aim for is actually the “pocket” between the first pin and the one angled behind it, which allows the ball to ricochet through the entire pyramid. But be careful not to hit the “pocket” head on, either! Studies have found that hitting the pocket at an angle of around 4-6 degrees makes the window for potential strikes much bigger.
4. WHY ROCK CLIMBERS USE CHALK
Rock climbing is all about friction: Rock faces with a lower coefficient of friction are more slippery and harder to hold onto. Sweaty palms, meanwhile, also lower friction, causing climbers to slip from even the easiest handholds. So, to increase friction, climbers often put chalk on their hands, which cuts back on sweat and helps them grasp rocks more securely—to an extent. Too much chalk can be more slippery than sweaty palms.
5. WHAT’S HAPPENING WHEN YOU EXPERIENCE A “RUNNER’S HIGH”
It’s common for distance runners to experience a feeling of euphoria, known as a “runner’s high,” towards the end of a long run. It turns out calling it a “high” is actually pretty apt: Scientists have found that after intense exercise, the brain releases chemicals (endorphins and cannabinoids) that cause feelings of bliss and, in some cases, can even be addictive.
6. HOW WATER SKIERS STAY AFLOAT
If you’ve ever gone waterskiing, you know that you can’t just stand up on your skis in still water: You need to be moving. But why? It turns out the way you position your skis while you’re in motion holds the key to staying afloat. By tilting your skis upward as you’re being towed forward, you create a space for the water to strike the bottom of your skis, creating an upward force. As you pick up speed, water pushes against your skis at greater force: the longer the ski, and the faster you’re going, the easier it is to stay up.
7. HOW TO FIND THE “SWEET SPOT” ON A BASEBALL BAT
You’ve probably noticed that hitting a baseball with the “wrong” part of the bat not only messes up your hit, but can make your hands vibrate painfully. That’s because of the vibrations that occur when the bat makes contact with the ball. These vibrations travel up and down the bat, but cancel each other out at one point, called the “node,” which is one of the bat’s “sweet spots.” This is the best place to hit a baseball because less of the bat’s energy is lost to vibrations, maximizing the amount of energy delivered to the ball—it can also be found pretty easily, by gently tapping a baseball bat with a hammer until you reach a point where you no longer feel the vibrations.
8. HOW BICYCLE WHEELS WORK
Bikes are known as “compound machines” because they make use of a variety of simple machines, such as the wheel and axle, to affect the force you need to exert in order to make it run. The taller a bicycle’s wheels are, the faster you go when you turn them at the axle, which is why racing bikes have such tall wheels. The spokes, meanwhile, distribute your weight evenly, so that you don’t cause the wheels to buckle.
9. WHAT YOGA DOES TO YOUR BRAIN
Using MRI scans, scientists have found that people who practice yoga have more gray matter (brain cells) in certain parts of their brains than those who don’t. These include the somatosensory cortex, which provides the mental map we have of our own bodies, as well as the superior parietal cortex, which impacts our ability to direct attention. They also found that some subjects had an enlarged hippocampus, a region that helps to regulate stress, which could help explain why yoga is seen as such a relaxing activity.
10. WHY BOOMERANGS ALWAYS COME BACK
Boomerangs are shaped a bit like a propeller and therefore act a bit like one: When you throw a boomerang, it turns on an axis, with one wing moving into oncoming airflow, and one wing moving away. The uneven airflow generates lift on one side of the boomerang, which is what causes the tool to come back to you.
11. WHY BASKETBALLS BOUNCE
Dribbling is one of the most basic components of a game of basketball, pretty much taken for granted by fans and players alike. But why, exactly, do basketballs bounce? It all comes down to the pressurized air inside the ball. When you drop the ball, gravity pulls it downward. Once it hits the ground, the pressurized air inside compresses, which makes the ball push back harder, popping it back up into the air.
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All images courtesy of iStock