“I talked to this guy Jerry Rice today, is he a big deal?” Meet the non-football fan who wrote an entire book on the sport

Peninsula Premier Admin

A self-described science evangelist, Ainissa Ramirez is on a mission to make science less intimidating and more accessible by revealing how ingrained it is in our everyday lives, whether you’re a math lover or a football fan.

The New York-based scientist and Stanford alum — Ramirez earned both her master’s and  Ph.D in materials science and engineering there — worked for Bell Laboratories and spent a decade on the Yale University faculty. Today, she’s an award-winning writer, podcaster and keynote speaker, whose TED talk on science education inspired her first book, “Save Our Science.”

It was the gridiron that inspired her second, “Newton’s Football.” The book, co-authored with journalist Allen St. John, offers readers a different perspective on a timeless American tradition, not from the perspective of a football fan, but a scientist, explaining everything from the complexities of chaos theory to the physical evolution of the game.

"Newton's Football"
“Newton’s Football”

Rather than bogging readers down with science and physics-heavy material, Ramirez brings the book to life with fascinating anecdotes — about Vince Lombardi and what he had in common with Isaac Newton, Teddy Roosevelt, “Shrek” and why a coach’s reluctance to go for it on fourth-down is essentially a case of monkey-brain.

Q In “Newton’s Football,” you talk a lot about chaos theory and the role it plays in the game. Can you boil that down for us?

A Chaos theory is really about how if you change how something starts, even with just a small modification, you can drastically change the outcome. When I was writing “Newton’s Football,” I met a coach who figured out that if he trained his players so they didn’t need to rest between plays, they could start the next play right away, while the other team is still trying to catch their breath. That birthed the no-huddle offense. By changing those initial conditions, he’s giving himself an advantage, which is essentially chaos theory in a nutshell.

Q You’ve said that Vince Lombardi and his background in physics and probability defined his coaching style. Are there other coaches out there right now following that legacy?

A I don’t know how many of them have the same background, but I think a lot have that STEM mindset. Football is all about gaining the advantage, which may be through an analysis of the rules or by just using science better, which often involves talking to mathematicians and scientists. That’s actually how the West Coast offense came about. They thought, OK, how do I get something down the field? Use the Pythagorean theorem! They might not have been scientists themselves, but they knew to ask questions, and that’s a very common practice in pretty much every discipline. It happens in science, and it happens on the football field.

Q If you were a football coach, what’s the first thing you would teach your players? Spend less time on the field and more in the classroom?

A Well, what did Vince Lombardi do? Study the game and learn about physics. Learn about the body, so you can apply those lessons to your own body and improve your conditioning. It’s not just about the classroom, though. A lot of people don’t think that football players have good brains, but they do. They’re smart like everyone else, and they are also smart in ways that most people are not. When I spoke to Jerry Rice and Bob Shuler, those were heavy conversations where I could not keep up; they were such experts in their field, and they really understood the strategy involved. Whether it’s something that’s innate or something that’s trained, I don’t know, but there’s definitely an athletic intelligence component to it.

Q One of your chapters, which delves into the distinctive shape of the football, is titled “The Divinely Random Bounce of the Prolate Spheroid” …

A The original football actually started off a bit flatter and more roundish than the football we have today, but as football evolved towards more of a throwing game, the pigskin developed a kind of nozzle at the end, so it could cut through the air more easily. However, this means it doesn’t typically behave well when it bounces on the ground. When that happens, you see these confident athletes suddenly look like silly kindergartners, jumping on the ball to try and stop it, because there really is no way to determine where that ball is going to bounce. If you took a football, dipped it in paint and bounced it 100 times the same way, by the end, the field would look like an abstract painting, because it’s just so chaotic and completely random.

Q In conducting your research for “Newton’s Football,” were there any surprises? Did you learn anything you really weren’t expecting?

A I learned a ton! I’m a scientist. I did not start off writing this book as a football fan, but I live with my brother, who is a football fan, and I’d say things like “Hey, I talked to this guy Jerry Rice today, is he a big deal?” I knew who Jerry Rice was — I was just messing with him — but there’s a lot I didn’t know about the sport going into this. Writing “Newton’s Football” was just as much part of my own education as it was my work.

Q What’s a science evangelist?

A I want to convince people that science is within their domain. I feel like a lot of people get turned off by science, and so I’m trying to re-engage them. That’s the reason I wrote “Newton’s Football.” I wanted to show people who didn’t think science was for them how they actually use science everyday. That’s my schtick. I like to show people the science they already employ, so it doesn’t seem so foreign to them.


More…

"The Alchemy of Us"
“The Alchemy of Us”

“Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game” (Ballantine Books, $26) is available at local independent bookstores. Check www.indiebound.org for the bookstore nearest you.

“The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transform One Another” (MIT, $18) is Ramirez’s newest book. It focuses on eight simple and often overlooked inventions that uniquely and significantly shaped human experience. If you’d like to know why the invention of the lightbulb means we’re taller than our ancestors were, give it a read.

Learn more about how science and regular life are one and the same at www.ainissaramirez.com.

Contributed by local news sources

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