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Jumping Into The Science Of Sports

Jumping Into The Science Of Sports

Dr. Chang Kee Jung, a State University of New York-Stony Brook professor, is one of the country’s leading astro-particle physicists. Jung’s research into subatomic particles called neutrinos could answer longstanding questions about the origins of the universe.

Born and raised in South Korea, he graduated from Seoul National University in 1979, then earned his doctorate in physics at Indiana University in 1986. Jung worked at Stanford University before moving to Stony Brook in 1990. There, he initiated a “Physics of Sports” course, a rarity in academia, but popular among students.

DI: Describe “Physics of Sports.” 

CKJ: I want students to better appreciate sports, on top of learning some physics. I’ll explain for instance, how baseball pitches like a curveball or a split-finger fastball are different, based on how fast a ball is thrown, how fast the ball spins and the direction the ball spins.

DI: What are exams like?

CKJ: About 80 percent of the questions involve physics — plenty of equations. I would ask “How long is [NBA star] Tracy McGrady’s hang time if he jumps 1.2 meters?” Students have learned that hang time in basketball is related to how high someone jumps. It’s not a superficial course, even though it’s for non-majors who might not take physics if not for this class.

DI: Why do so many people believe that physics is a difficult subject?

CKJ: Physics doesn’t use words we commonly know. Math is its language. So first, we have to be good at math to understand physics. Add to that, we’re studying natural phenomena. But unless you’re training a professional physicist, you can teach physics in a less demanding way.

DI: Are many physicists sports fans?

CKJ: They generally don’t like sports. Physicists are very international, very progressive politically. But they’re often socially conservative. Many physicists seem to like classical music and opera, but not pop music.

DI: How did you become hooked on sports?

CKJ: As a kid, we played soccer with a rubber ball. It had air, and that was it. I enjoyed watching people like Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter grow into superstars. I still like playing soccer and volleyball, but am usually too busy.

DI: Who’s your favorite athlete?

CKJ: Muhammad Ali. He’s an incredibly interesting person. I watch boxing alone because no one I know likes it. The hand speed is fascinating.

By Lydia Lum

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