Exploring the physics of athletics

When it was conceived, the PBS science education program "Newton's Apple" was intended to target kids in junior high or middle school. But as the show enters its ninth season this week (at 8 p.m. tomorrow on Maryland Public Television), host David Heil says research shows 80 percent of the viewers are 18 or older.

"It's funny, but it seems even more useful to people who got off the science learning train some time ago," says Heil.


Even the show's title teaches a little bit of science. Remember? It refers to Isaac Newton's reputed realization of the force of gravity by being struck in the head by a plunging pome.

Tomorrow's premiere provides a good example of the show's appeal to a much broader audience, and why MPT this fall has slotted it in prime time. (It repeats weekly at 5:30 p.m. Saturdays.)


The subject is sports, and Heil and field reporter Peggy Knapp -- "she gets to do most of the fun things," notes Heil -- relate Olympic activities including swimming, weight lifting, and running to the science of biomechanics.

Knapp gets to take a terrifying run on the icy luge course at Lake Placid, and at the U.S. Olympic training site in Colorado Springs, Heil swims in a "flume" test tank. Expert guests help analyze the subtle aspects of his stroke, such as the angle of the hands, that can produce more speed.

Even viewers "who find our age of competition is well behind us" are engaged in science study as fans, contends Heil, a science educator who also works for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

"Very few armchair athletes consider themselves armchair scientists, too, but they are doing more science than they realize" merely by appreciating competitive performances, he notes.

Next week's show includes a study of persuasive powers through a visit with mentalist The Amazing Kreskin.

"It was a chance for us to explore one of those areas that people confuse with science," says Heil. In the same vein, a future show also looks at medical quackery.

And among other coming episodes, rocker Ted Nugent talks about about audio feedback, Dick Cavett studies laughter, the Frisbee flying disc is studied for aerodynamic form, and Heil and Knapp pay a visit to amusement parks to examine the physics behind thrill rides.

Heil says "Newton's Apple" was in some jeopardy last spring when eight-season underwriter DuPont withdrew its support. But the 3M company stepped in as principal corporate underwriter this fall.


Despite its adult appeal, the host says the show is also used in classrooms. And when not in production, he is in demand for appearances at science educator gatherings, including a workshop earlier this year at Towson State University and another for the Maryland Department of Education.