Brains over Brawn

At the gym recently, a twenty something guy who was built like an offensive lineman rashly challenged his still-fit-but-fading father to take him on in any lift the dad cared to name. The older man wisely chose tricep dips, which allowed him to beat his son easily (he was lifting about half as much weight as his bulky offspring). Every grey and balding guy in the gym, including me, suppressed a snicker.

It recalled for me a similar moment of triumph. I went to second and third grade in a little school down the road from the main school where grades 1 and 4-6 were taught (this odd arrangement was a legacy of segregation, what we knew as the “second and third grade school” was in less enlightened times called the “Negro annex”). Racing a single lap around the outside of the school building was an everyday activity at recess.

One day, Marty, the biggest, fastest, meanest kid in third grade, was standing at the sidewalk we used at the starting line. Next to him was a boy named Chris, who was almost as big and almost as fast. A race was declared, and, dominance hierarchies being what they are, Marty took on not Chris but me, one of the smallest kids in second grade. Gulp.

As Chris watched, Marty opened up a lead on me even before he reached the first corner of the school building. As we turned right and went out of Chris’ sight line, Marty’s lead grew with every step. It seemed hopeless.

But a large supply truck was parked diagonally next to the third corner of the school building, just before the home stretch of our race. Marty, whose mental swiftness never remotely rivaled his physical speed, decided to swing wide all the way around it. In contrast, I squeezed between the truck and the corner of the building, instantly making up all the distance between us and more.

As we rounded the fourth and final corner of the school I could see the shocked look on Chris’ face as we came into view. The little second grader was leading big fast Marty by a mile. Outraged, Marty turned on the jets and rapidly closed the distance, but he had one less second than he needed to pass me before the finish line. I announced my retirement immediately, despite aggressive pleas for a rematch. My 7 year old heart was exploding with joy.

Maybe that’s why I love this scene from 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, a first-class Saturday matinee-style adventure story that highlights the genius of animator Ray Harryhausen. The set-up for the scene is that Jason is holding an Olympics to pick the greatest athletes in all of Greece to join him on his quest for the Golden Fleece. Brainy, wimpy Hylas would seem to have no chance. But watch the first three minutes of this clip and see what happens. The underlying physics are hard to credit, but it’s great fun nonetheless.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

6 thoughts on “Brains over Brawn”

  1. Many third basemen do the one bounce to first sometimes, allegedly on purpose even. If you consider that an overthrow is worse than an underthrow, it does not seem so bad.

    1. Concepcion was quoted as saying that a ball that bounced traveled *faster* to first base than a ball thrown through the air.

      1. Are you sure it travels slower in _all_ cases?

        For this thought experiment, assume no air friction and a perfectly elastic bounce off the ground, and an initial height of zero.

        Imagine your throwing arm maxes out at some speed V such that you must throw at a 45 degree angle to get the ball to the target with no bounces. The horizontal component of that speed is Sqrt(2) * V, which will tell you the time needed to reach first base.

        Now instead of throwing at 45 degrees, throw at an angle Theta such that it bounces exactly one time, halfway between you and first. Since that angle is lower, the horizontal velocity is Cos(theta) * V, which will be higher than cos(45) if you pick the smaller of the two possible theta values. (there will be two ‘two bounce’ solutions)
        Since the horizontal velocity is larger, the distance will be traversed quicker.

        Likewise, you can keep increasing the number of bounces, increasing the horizontal speed component until you are rolling it to first.

        Removing the simplifications, there will still exist possible optimal solutions that involve bouncing, depending on the various coefficients of friction and elasticity. Whether said solutions exist in the Concepcion case I will leave as an exercise for the reader.

        1. “Whether said solutions exist in the Concepcion case I will leave as an exercise for the reader.”

          Well, I’M the reader, and there’s no way I’m solving THAT.

  2. I’ve seen plenty of skimmed stones take a final skip 5x higher than the previous skips. Agreed that the disc would have had to be fired by a catapult not a human arm to skip that far though.


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