Gold Medal Math

For the past week and a half or so, my computer browser has been finding its way to NBC’s Olympics coverage while I’m supposed to be doing other things. I might have a different answer the next time I watch a Simone tumble through the air or shoot through the water, but right now after seeing Chloe Kim and Nathan Chen defy the laws of gravity, I’m inclined to agree with June Thomas at Slate that the winter Olympics are the best Olympics.

Credit: Jankenhoi, via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

As a bonus, I can justify my short-term skate, ski, and snowboard obsession by reminding myself that winter Olympics events are exhilarating, gorgeous examples of applied math, physics, and engineering.

I wrote about the physics of figure skating jumps for Smithsonian, and I’ve enjoyed reading about the math and physics of other events as well. Jen Ouelette wrote about taking a curling expedition with a group of physicists for her blog Cocktail Party Physics. Dina Spector explained why speed skaters swing their arms back and forth for Business Insider. Larry Greenemeier at Scientific American wrote about how the U.S. skeleton team tested their equipment and body positions in a simulator at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Big air snowboarding, a new Olympic sport this year, is a physics marvel, as Scientific American and Wired have explained. Teachers who want to use the Olympics in their classrooms have some suggestions from the New York Times Learning Network and the American Association of Physics Teachers.

The sports themselves are where most of the magic happens, but I have also enjoyed learning about some math and physics behind the scenes. For instance, did you know we don’t actually know why ice is slippery? F Yeah Fluid Dynamics explains some of the theories and controversies in the first post of her series about the winter Olympics. And the National Institute of Standards and Technology explores one of the most important behind-the-scenes parts of the Olympics: precision measurements. FiveThirtyEight has joined the fray with medal forecasting and data-driven stories about Olympic sports. I was particularly interested in Ella Koeze’s analysis of what might happen if men and women competed against each other in skiing events. Finally, the Olympic rings themselves have some math to them. I wrote about the topology of the connected sum of four Hopf links in the summer of 2016.

Enjoy the rest of the games!

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