Tuesday, August 17th, 2010...2:39 pm

Flipped out accuracy

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Mathematics and Sports book coverInterested in math and baseball? golf? football? soccer? basketball? Check out the newly released Mathematics and Sports book edited by Joe Gallian! My work on math and soccer, which includes a contributed article in that book, led me to help with the ESPN show, Sports Science, during the 2010 World Cup.

This post is about their call to help with math related to a bicycle kick. The producer from Sports Science had already called regarding the trajectory of a soccer ball. Suddenly, another email came requesting help with mathematics. The piece was on the accuracy of a bicycle kick. My family was on vacation so any time I devoted to work was limited if not even existent. Knowing their short timelines, I was willing to listen to what was needed and see if I could help quickly. The producer was convinced it wouldn’t be very hard for me. So, on that Friday morning, I set my daughter up for “screen time,” which would consist of a 30 minute children’s show. This was my “stopwatch” as to the amount of time I had to “solve” whatever problem was soon to come my way.

I called the producer and she presented their problem. They were looking at the accuracy of a bicycle kick. In particular, how accurate does a kick need to be? I shared some assumptions I could make on the problem and she agreed they were acceptable. I stood in the bedroom looking for a piece of paper. I found a tissue. A felt tip pen worked to jot down my idea as to a solution. Indeed, I had sufficient work to indicate I could solve the problem. I responded, “I need to sit and look at my work carefully but I think I can give you your desired formula.” She responded, “GREAT! That will allow our video analysts to determine the speed of the ball from the video we will be using in the piece.” I responded, “I have about 23 minutes to work on this and then we are off for the day, enjoying New York City. If you don’t hear from me in 30 minutes, you won’t hear from me until tomorrow.” She replied, “Then, I need to let you go.”

I moved from the bedroom to the living room to find my daughter enjoying the show. I sat down and reviewed my tissue paper notes. I found paper and worked on it again. I thought about how my assumptions impacted the feasibility of the result and all seemed fine. I then worked out the mathematics that gave the formula the group needed for their piece, although it was the result of the formula they really needed. I had about 15 minutes left. I thought, “Ok, I have what they need. But, I want to be sure they understand it and not simply plug and chug. How do I do that?” I sat dumbfounded for a moment and then realized, “How would I explain it to students? Through pictures, formulas and text.” So, I used PowerPoint as my blackboard and wrote everything up. Then with a few minutes (only) to spare, I had the slide show, converted to it a PDF, and emailed it to ESPN. Was the explanation necessary? I wasn’t sure. But then, about 24 hours later, the producer emailed as she understood my work and asked about a component of it which enabled us to correct a mistake I’d made in my calculations. (I used the Google calculator as I didn’t have one with me. I had made a keystroke error that I didn’t notice even though I had “checked’ my answer.”) How wonderful to have the producer understand to the point of making corrections!

In the end, the piece appeared on TV. When? As we were driving back from vacation! I learned on Twitter…10 minutes before it appeared on TV…when we were standing in line to be seated for lunch! Neat to know it was on TV and funny to have no way to view it, record it, or connect with someone to have it recorded. But now, you can view the online version, as I did a few days later:

Did you recognize the part I helped with? Very cool work by Sports Science and a pleasure to be a help…with my 30 minutes of open time. We had a great day, by the way…doing all that is fun and in totally vacation (non-math) mode!

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