The Science of Stuff
April 5, 2012
A. The morning after the race, I received an email from Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Cohen, which led to a 15-minute conversation about Tide and NASCAR that mostly discussed how detergents work and how they were employed in the cleanup of the Montoya wreck at Daytona. The reporter knew about my FYS 112 course, “The Science of Stuff,” and asked about how I got interested in NASCAR and how that interest developed into the course. I knew exactly what he was talking about, since I was up until 1 a.m. Tuesday morning watching the completion of the race.
Q: I understand that you’ve developed a fondness for NASCAR over the years. Did chemistry help develop this interest?
A. During the fall 2007 term I was teaching general chemistry I and one of my students expressed an interest in more CentreTerm courses for people interested in science. I decided to try to help fix that. My first thought was to develop a course on the science of sports, but I quickly discovered that any substantive coverage of sports science requires a working knowledge of calculus. I was casting around for ideas when I discovered Diandra Leslie-Pelecky’s book The Physics of NASCAR. I ordered a copy and it arrived just before the 2008 Daytona 500. I started reading, found the science fascinating and finished the book just in time to watch the race. By the time Ryan Newman took the checkered flag, I was hooked. The combination of the science that goes into vehicle design, the engineering that turns that design into a race car, and the management of a team that sets it up and keeps it operating so a driver can run 200 miles per hour—and in traffic that looks like Nicholasville Road on the day after Thanksgiving—is a challenge I find fascinating. That led to attending a Nationwide race at Kentucky Speedway in June, and this summer will mark the fourth year that my wife and I have had season tickets to Kentucky Speedway.
Q: And this led to creation of your “Science of Stuff” first-year seminar (FYS)?
A. Exactly. As my interest in NASCAR developed, I found that NASCAR touches on almost every branch of science and engineering. This makes it a great skeleton on which to develop a course. The chemistry of alloys and welding techniques, the aerodynamics of a race car and converting race fuel into horsepower are just a few of the topics that you can talk about. If you add in human factors like mitigating a crash, both by car and track design, and by driver equipment like the fire suit that may have saved Juan Pablo Montoya’s life during his collision with the jet dryer, then it’s not hard to find topics that students find interesting.
Q. How often have you taught the course, and has the Leslie-Pelecky book remained your primary textbook?
A. I’ve taught the FYS course twice. The first time, in January 2009, I stayed fairly close to Leslie-Pelecky’s book. It’s a fascinating read, and you can get the flavor of her book from her “Building Speed” blog available at: www.buildingspeed.org/blog/. I supplemented her book with How Everything Works: Making Physics Out of the Ordinary by Louis A. Bloomfield. The second time, I used The Physics of NASCAR during the first week to define and illustrate some basic science and then used that foundation to explore other topics. We studied the sinking of the Titanic, for instance, and the 2009 accident at the Sayano–Shushenskaya hydroelectric station in Russia. While the course was in progress in January 2011, both the BP report and the National Commission Report on the Deepwater Horizon blowout became available on the Internet, and we looked at both the technical and managerial decisions that led to the oil spill. A little science goes a long way.
Q: Are there other “who’d-a thunk-it” kind of science facts that you have up your sleeve?
A. I’m scheduled to teach “The Science of Stuff” again for the 2013 CentreTerm, so I’m keeping my eyes open for topics to include in the course. I expect the fire at Daytona will make the list of topics.
Interviewed by Michael P. Strysick, Director of Communications
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