Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Physics of Surfing


It could only happen at UCSD, a renowned surfer school located in sunny San Diego, California, an actual for-credit course “The Physics of Surfing.” Really a 1-unit applied physics class for freshmen that blends coursework in physics with hands-on experiments, students take part in “wet lab exercises” designed to measure the physical forces at work when surfing. This is a far cry from the physics lab courses I remember from college where you'd have to do tedious data collection using an air track experiment. Newtonian mechanics should and can be made more interesting so maybe UCSD is onto something.

The students head down to the nearby beach with surfboards retrofitted with a GPS receiver and an accelerometer to collect data about the speed, direction and acceleration of the waves. I can't help but wonder if the surfing is done at the famed nudist beach "Black's Beach?" Imagine that, a clothing-optional physics lab!

The class is under the tutelage of David Sandwell, professor of geophysics at UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography who enjoys hooking freshmen on the romance of scientific inquiry.

Students learn that surfboards follow the laws of fluid mechanics and see how physics works in the real world. The course is really an introduction to scientific research. The devices attached to the surfboards collect data that is uploaded to laptop computers and then analyzed in class where it is explained in terms of the underlying physical laws.

Whoever said physics isn’t fun?! I can envision a whole series of similar applied physics courses: the physics of sky diving, bungie jumping, snowboarding, just to name a few.

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