Science Monday, July 9, 2012

How to cross pool: propeller or paddle?

Anyone who has spent time swimming the 50 meters across Colorado Mesa University’s swimming pool has had plenty of time to reflect on a lot of things, maybe none more pertinent than what is the best stroke for getting across the pool quickly and efficiently.

As swimmers in the U.S. and around the world prepare for the Summer Olympics in London later this month, researchers at Johns Hopkins University announced they had found an answer.

For decades, freestyle swimmers have been taught to pull their hands through the water in a zig-zag motion called sculling, meant to replicate somewhat the action of a propeller.

Prior to that, a more straightforward “deep-catch” pulling motion in which the hand is simply pulled straight back through the water was more common.

The debate between the two stroke styles was essentially whether hands should be used as propellers or paddles.

For the new study, published last month, researchers analyzed video of elite swimmers and created computer simulations to eventually find that the paddling, “deep-catch” motion was more efficient and effective.

Feel free to test their results any time.

■ The fundamental question of how and why matter exists took a huge step toward being answered last week. Physicists at the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva reported, with statistical certainty, that they had discovered the elusive Higgs boson or at least something extremely similar to it.

The discovery fills in a key and final gap in the Standard Model of particle physics, the theory that describes subatomic particles and how they make up our universe.

Up until about 50 years ago, that model lacked an explanation for how particles gain the mass necessary to create matter.

But a possible answer emerged in 1964 when physicist Peter Higgs put forward a theory that there is an energy field through that essentially sticks to the particles and weighs them down with mass as they pass through the field. (Those now-“massive” particles then combine to eventually form stars, rocks, planets, humans, etc.)

The subatomic particle that imbues the other particles with mass was eventually referred to as the Higgs boson. It has also sometimes been popularly referred to as the “God particle” because of its role in causing the Big Bang.

But its existence could not be confirmed or denied — either would have been a breakthrough for physics — until last week.

Researchers still need to confirm definitively that the particle discovered is the Higgs boson and not just a very similar new particle, but the discovery comes plenty close enough that physicists rejoiced at the news — not only due to the discovery but also due to what it says about the state and pace of scientific knowledge today.

In a statement, Higgs — the person not the particle — said, “I am astounded at the amazing speed with which these results have emerged ... I never expected this to happen in my lifetime.”


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