Engineering Conference Eyes Hows and Whys
By David Pevear
LOWELL -- This is not where to come seeking answers to the Red Sox's problems from some of the smartest people in sports. This is where the science of the ball and bat doing whatever they do, irrespective of how the Red Sox are doing, is studied and applied.
To many here, the Red Sox are a foreign concept.
The International Sports Engineering Conference this week at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center is a meeting of minds focused on developing faster, stronger and sleeker equipment and fabrics through cutting-edge science. Performance-enhancement in this context is a virtuous exercise involving drag coefficient equations, terminal velocity, and good methodology.
The conference presented by the International Sports Engineering Association (ISEA), and hosted by UMass Lowell, has brought together 250 engineers, scientists and equipment-makers from around the world. This is the ninth ISEA conference -- which has been held every two years beginning in 1996 -- but only the second held in the United States. The 2010 conference was in Vienna.
Here you stand a better chance of bumping into someone who has a keen appreciation for the recently discovered Higgs boson than someone who knows of Josh Beckett's chicken-and-beer cravings.
Many of those attending this year's five-day conference, which ends Friday, were headed to the Lowell Spinners' game Wednesday night against the Mahoning Valley Scrappers at LeLacheur Park.
"Some don't understand baseball that well. The aerodynamics (of the game) might by the only thing they'll understand," said Patrick Drane, assistant director of UMass Lowell's Baseball Research Center and the chairman of this week's international conference. "But hopefully they'll have fun."
John Eric Goff, a physics professor at Lynchburg (Va.) College and author of Gold Medal Physics: The Science of Sports, which includes a chapter on Doug Flutie's Miracle-in-Miami pass, said he once dreamed about playing professional baseball. "I'm probably one of the few people in the world who chose to do physics because something else was too hard," he joked.
Goff, Thursday's keynote speaker at the conference, watches sports with a physicist's eyes, "picking up on sound-travel time or angular momentum conservation" amid great athletic performances. After presiding over presentations Wednesday on topics such as skin suits' effect on long track speed skating times and "the compression effect on aerodynamic properties of sports fabrics," Goff said "it's amazing the push of human performance that people are after. What's going on in this conference is cutting edge."
See you on the medal stand in London.
Oh, and Goff's scientific advice to the Red Sox is to "win more games against the Yankees."
Bruce Jahnke, director of product testing and validation at K2 Sports, was asked whether he can just sit back and watch sports without thinking science. He smiled. "Once an engineer, always an engineer," said Jahnke. "I'm of the nature that when I see something, I'm thinking (only) 'how can I make it better?' As engineers and scientists we love to analyze and sometimes overcomplicate things."
Jahnke was Wednesday's keynote speaker, speaking on the future of ski design and technology. One attendee asked whether equipment at the elite downhill-racing level is becoming too fast for the human body to safely control. Jahnke responded that speed restrictions are the responsibility of the sport's governing body, that he is not in the business of making slower skis.
When later asked how fast he could make a downhill racer go, Jahnke again smiled. "Terminal velocity ... 170 mph if he wants to go that fast," he said.
A mechanical engineer passionate about skiing, Jahnke embodies the level of sophistication applied to modern fun and games. He previously worked in the commercial airplane division at Boeing.
The ski industry actually moves faster, he said.
"We bring new product to the market every year," said Jahnke. "Boeing comes out with a new airplane once every 10 years. So yeah, (K2) is a much faster-paced company."