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Jump into Olympic-size science

Click for video: The sport of curling lends itself to a discussion of physics
in a video presented by NBC Learn in cooperation with the National Science
Foundation. Click on the image to see the full video series.

Science and sports aficionados are using the Winter Olympics as a teachable moment, for subjects ranging from the mechanics behind a curling freeze to the meteorology behind Vancouver's non-freeze.

The geeks and the jocks may be on opposing sides in the battle for high-school supremacy. By the time you get to the Olympic-scale level of excellence, however, geeks and jocks definitely need each other.

A prime example came during the 2008 Beijing Games, when swimmers wearing innovative suits almost literally blew their rivals out of the water - so much so that the suits were outlawed as a form of "technological doping." Similar technologies have revolutionized winter sports ranging from skiing and hockey to speed skating.

If the jocks need the geeks to help them go faster, the geeks need the jocks as well - to serve as prime specimens for physiological studies, for example. Top athletes are helping scientists understand just what the human body is capable of, and those insights are fed back into efforts to make the rest of us healthier as well.

Learning from the Olympics
Then there's the classroom application: If you have to teach your students how angular momentum works, a high-speed video of figure skater Rachael Flatt will hold their attention better than the filmstrips their grandparents had to sit through in physics class. At least that's the theory behind the series of Olympic-themed science videos presented by NBC Learn and the National Science Foundation. (NBC Universal is a partner in the msnbc.com joint venture.)

Anchored by NBC's Lester Holt, the 16 videos delve into the physics behind curling, snowboarding and other sports represented at the Olympics. How do Newton's laws of motion enter into short-track speed skating? How does math contribute to the strategy for winning a hockey game?

The videos provide extra face time for U.S. Olympic hopefuls such as skater J.R. Celski and cross-country skier Liz Stephens. Flatt was a natural for the series, in part because her dad is a biochemical engineer and her mom is a molecular biologist.

"It's definitely safe to say that science runs in my blood," she said in an NSF news release. "I jumped at the chance to participate in this project because my parents have passed along their love of science to me over the years, and I hope to one day pursue a career in the field."

Inside Science News Service has also caught Olympic fever: This week, Inside Science's Chris Gorski looks at the science of curling - that curious sport in which players push stones across a patch of ice and sweep brooms in front of them to guide them to a target. It turns out that the speed of the stone should dictate the style of the sweeping.

Olympic forecasts
Another Inside Science report, by Emilie Lorditch, delves into the system set up to forecast weather for the Olympic events, hour by hour, site by site. To cope with the challenge, Canadian meteorologists beefed up the Vancouver area's network of automated weather observing stations, stepped up the training of meteorologists and improved the computerized forecasting models.

The 2010 Olympics will put a short-term forecasting system known as "nowcasting" to its most extensive test yet. Popular Mechanics reports that sensors will be measuring snowfall on a minute-by-minute basis, and nowcasts will be issued at 15-minute intervals, with a spatial resolution of 0.6 mile (1 kilometer).

The big concern right now is the lack of snow: It's ironic that even as America's East Coast is coming out of the worst snowstorm in decades, Canada's West Coast is having its warmest winter in decades - which is not a good thing for the Olympics. The Orange County Register quotes a historian as saying that long-term climate change could turn the Winter Games into an endangered species.

"I think many people look out 20, 30 years from now and are concerned about whether the Winter Olympics will still be viable," said Derick L. Hulme, a political science professor at Michigan's Alma College who specializes in Olympic history.

Is that concern overblown, or will the geeks have to come up with some kind of weather modification system to keep the jocks on the ski slopes? What other climatological or technological trends could affect the Olympics of the future? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

... And speaking of forecasts
Who will come out on top in the medal race? Answering that question is a popular pastime for economic forecasters during Olympic season. This time around, Colorado College economist Daniel Johnson says Canada will come out on top with 27 medals (five of them gold). The Wall Street Journal's statistical analysis also sees Canada as the big winner, but with a significantly bigger haul (37 total, 12 gold).

The computer models tend to favor Canada due to the "home-field advantage" that has been observed during past Olympics. However, the Inkling predictive market - which depends on the wisdom of crowds rather than the wisdom of software - has consistently favored Germany over Canada and the United States. The Hubdub market also goes with Germany over Canada, but by a slim margin. Sports Illustrated has a similar projection, based on an event-by-event analysis.

So the Vancouver Games may provide the opportunity for a little side bet on the accuracy of medal count predictions: Who will come closest, the geeks or the jocks? We'll get back to you with the answer in 16 days.

Update for 8 p.m. ET: Lessonoply offers lesson plans keyed to the NBC Learn videos. Meanwhile, The New York Times' Learning Network blog is offering a "Winter Olympics Teaching and Learning Extravaganza," and TeacherVision has put together an online curriculum guide keyed to the Vancouver Games.

More on the science of the Olympics:

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