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When people talk about the physics of American football, they normally mention force, torque,
and so on…
Like how the energy from two linemen colliding is enough to power a 60W light bulb for over
a minute, or is equivalent to an average person falling two stories off of a building!
But there's another aspect of physics in football that isn't talked about as much – symmetry!
You might think symmetry is just for butterflies and rorschach tests, but it's all over the
place in football: there's translational symmetry when teams keep the same formations as they
move up or down the field, and rotational symmetry when they switch sides after a touchdown.
Even the ball has axial symmetry so it can spin smoothly through the air.
But why is symmetry useful in the first place?
Symmetry makes things easier, or at least more efficient; it gives you a guide: "same
scenario, same action."
That means you don't have to reinvent the wheel all the time: to draw a straight line,
you just keep drawing in the same direction.
For a circle, keep curving the same amount.
So when football players practice a play over and over, the patterns of football become
so ingrained in their reflexes they can act without thinking.
Psychologists call this "habit formation"; we call it "symmetry in time"!
And when players line up on the field the same way at the thirty, or forty, or fifty
yard lines, that's "symmetry in space".
Even physics itself is symmetric – ever heard of Newton's law: "a body in motion tends
to stay in motion"?
That's just nature saying "keep doing the same thing."
What's more, Newton's laws of motion are the same now as they were yesterday, and they'll
be the same again tomorrow!
Doesn't that make life easy?
Ultimately, symmetry is what allows both science AND football to function - if the laws of
the universe (or the rules of football) changed from day to day, we wouldn't be able to repeat
experiments, make predictions, or know what plays to practice.
So when you reach for yet another handful of chips while watching the next football
game, know that millions across the country are doing exactly the same, in perfect symmetry.