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Can Physics Save Football?
The football helmet was designed to protect players against harm (by skull fractures), but the new behavior created a new threat (of concussions and other brain injuries).
What's the Big Idea?
The evolution of the football helmet is a cautionary tale of how inventions can cause new and potentially problematical human behaviors. Football helmets were initially designed to prevent skull fractures. Imagine that an eggshell is your skull and the yolk is your brain. The helmet is the bubble wrap that protects the skull from cracking. This protection was needed for the type of game played when helmets were created.
But, the game changed. Players believed that their heads were protected from all harm. Confidently donning their helmets, players literally used their heads—to tackle. The helmet was designed to protect players against harm (by skull fractures), but the new behavior created a new threat (of concussions and other brain injuries).
Watch my demonstration of this concept in the video here:
What's the Significance?
These trade-offs happen in design all the time. A change in technology raises with new and unexpected problems. For example, LEDs are more efficient forms of lighting and do not produce as much heat as incandescent bulbs. You get more bang for your energy buck with LEDs. The down side comes in winter, when traffic lights with LEDs get covered with snow. Since they run cooler, they can no longer melt the snow on their own. So, now cities must figure out ways to remove snow from these very efficient stoplights. One innovation often comes with consequences.
So, we are at a crossroads in football. If we really want this game of collisions to continue without endangering players, we need new and better helmets. The answer can be found in Newton’s Laws of Motion. There is a concept in physics called impulse, which is equal to the force during impact and the time of impact. If you increase the amount of time while keeping the amount of impact the same, the amount of force experienced by the player will decrease.
A better way to describe this is the dropping of an egg on concrete and on a cushion. When the egg lands on the concrete, the time of impact is very short, which makes the amount of force the egg experiences high. The net result is that the egg cracks. Now, try to drop the egg on a cushion. When the egg hits the cushion, the impact takes longer as the egg sinks into the cushion and then bounces back. More time, means the net force is less and the eggshell does not break.
We need the same thing for helmets. We need more materials or designs with shock absorbing materials that slow down the impact and reduce the net force the skull experiences. This is one way to prevent brain injuries.
So that is the physics part. But the other barrier is social. Football players don’t want to wear helmets that are huge and look silly. One Hall of Fame quarterback said only half-jokingly he’d rather get a concussion than wear a particularly dorky—but highly protective—helmet. No one wants to be that guy.
Collisions are an integral part of modern football, but there are tradeoffs. We all need to use our heads, figuratively, and find ways to save the game from itself.
Ainissa Ramirez (@blkgrlphd) is a science evangelist who is passionate about getting kids of all ages excited about science. Before taking on this call, she was an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Yale University. Currently, she is writing a book on the science behind football with NYT bestselling author Allen St. John entitled Newton’s Football (Ballantine books).
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Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
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- New guidelines published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal argue that obesity should be defined as a condition that involves high body mass index along with a corresponding physical or mental health condition.
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