How to break peaks in sport performances

Sunday February 10, 2013

Q: Sixty years ago, running a four-minute mile was thought to be impossible, though today’s record stands at 3:43:13, and John Brenkus in his book "The Perfection Point" says we can do it even faster.

When the athletic cognoscenti -- those wise guys -- start talking about human peak performances in the 100-meter dash, longest golf drive and highest basketball dunk, what might they say?

A: The current record for the 100-meter dash is 9.58 seconds, but getting off the block within 100 milliseconds could push this to 8.99 seconds, says Mario Aguilar in "Wired" magazine.

In 2009, Usain Bolt sustained a blistering 27 mph for a 9.58-second finish. Next, "factor in a 3.7 percent physiological improvement, plus better environmental conditions, and the 9-second barrier could fall."

Similar analyses push the estimate of the longest golf drive from the current 418 yards to a theoretical 543. Gains here might come from golfers being several inches taller than the 5-foot 11-inch record-holder Jaime Sadlowski, along with greater body flexibility for a smoother swing and backswing, plus added muscle.

Finally, the highest basketball dunk currently stands at 12 feet, by both Dwight Howard and former Harlem Globetrotter Michael Wilson.

"How to best them?" poses Aguilar. For starters, be tall. Wilson was only 6 feet, 4 inches, but this could grow to 7 feet, 2 inches without sacrificing jumping ability.

"With freakishly long arms, that could mean a vertical reach of 10 feet, 9 inches. Figure in a 51-inch leap, add in the diameter of the ball, and you’re slamming on the shot clock."

Q: We’re here to congratulate you on being one of the truly lucky 7 percent and trust you would agree with our characterization, as would probably all your family, friends, acquaintances ... provided they’re still lucky enough to be among the lucky 7 percent Seven percent of what?

A: You may have heard it said that with today’s soaring world population, there are more people alive now than have lived throughout all of previous human history, says Caroline Williams in "New Scientist" magazine.

Not so! In fact, not even close, declares demographer Carl Haub. You can take today’s world population of about 7 billion and then add in about 100 billion people who have died over the last 50,000 years, for a total of some 107 billion who have ever lived.

Dividing 7 billion by 107 billion yields about 7 percent of those ever born who are still living today. Lucky us!

Q: It’s an eye-riveting YouTube party trick where so much cornstarch is dumped into a swimming pool that people can walk or even trot across the water’s surface. How is this possible?

A: The suspended cornstarch particles convert the water into a non-Newtonian fluid with a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality, says Devin Powell in "Science News" magazine.

Though a hand can slide gently into the water, a punching fist might wind up with a broken wrist.

"The suspended particles join together like snow piling up in front of a snowplow," pushing back with a pressure rivaling the tip of a high heel shoe (the journal "Nature"). X-rays of the opaque muck suggest that sudden forces can squeeze water out of the spaces between the particles, leaving inter-particle friction to take over and causing the goop to behave more like a solid.

Physicist Daniel Bonn of the University of Amsterdam actually fired bullets into such suspensions to study how they thickened. Eventually science might understand how cornstarch solutions could be used to make "liquid" body armor by soaking Kevlar in similar mixes.

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at


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