Lots of fun with visualization. NYTimes puts all the medal winners of the modern olympics in 100m on one track, calibrated to the Olympic Record.
Here’s a suggestion for NBC, though: How about celebrating this group of American gymnasts, perhaps the greatest ever, by explaining to Americans exactly what makes them so great? I’m not a lifelong gymnastics fan—true gymnerds refer to the rest of us as “Four-Year Fans”—but earlier this year I spent several months engrossed in the sport while writing about Biles. I now consider myself safely in the ninetieth percentile of gymnastics comprehension, meaning that I understand about ten per cent of what is going on. But every bit I’ve learned has made the sport wildly more interesting to watch. On Sunday, for instance, I watched the qualifying round with two Four-Year Fans and was able to pass along an insight that Biles’s coaches have pointed out many times, but that NBC didn’t. As good as Biles is on her world-beating Amanar—a vault in which she twists two and a half times while flipping through the air—she will never get a perfect score because of the tiniest flaw: she crosses her toes.
This is the kind of information we might expect to learn from NBC’s broadcasts. There’s no questioning the credentials of the network’s analysts: Tim Daggett won a team gold medal at the 1984 Olympics, and Nastia Liukin won the individual all-around in 2008. But their expertise is often muted by the strictures of a prime-time broadcast. “My producer always puts a note card in front of me, like, ‘Talk to Madeleine in Middle America, who doesn’t know gymnastics,’ ”
This, all of this. The Olympics are a time when a bunch of unusual sports end up on the air. It is an opportunity to help us understand them and get excited about them. People get excited about things they understand, and can tell what a good / bad / great performance looks like.
I remember sitting in a hotel room in Sydney in 2000, because the Olympics actually started, watching a cricket match. I had no idea what I was watching. I turned to my friend Dylan and said “ok, we’ve been in Australia for a month, we’re going to figure this out.” And with a laptop up searching the internet while watching, we figuring out enough of the basics that we could see what a good or terrible performance looked like. And it was so much more interesting to watch.
My callers fall into two very different categories. Some of them cherish the opportunity to talk to a physicist because one-to-one conversation is simply more efficient than Google. They can shoot up to 20 questions a minute, everything from: ‘How do we know quarks exist?’ to ‘Can atoms contain tiny universes?’ They’re normally young or middle-aged men who want to understand all the nerdy stuff but have no time to lose. That’s the minority.
The majority of my callers are the ones who seek advice for an idea they’ve tried to formalise, unsuccessfully, often for a long time. Many of them are retired or near retirement, typically with a background in engineering or a related industry. All of them are men. Many base their theories on images, downloaded or drawn by hand, embedded in long pamphlets. A few use basic equations. Some add videos or applets. Some work with 3D models of Styrofoam, cardboard or wires. The variety of their ideas is bewildering, but these callers have two things in common: they spend an extraordinary amount of time on their theories, and they are frustrated that nobody is interested.
What happens when an out of work theoretical physicist starts a business where anyone can call him on skype and ask questions for $50 / 20 minutes? Some really fascinating stuff. Mostly about how people absorb, or mis absorb, popular science.
We often forget that abstractions and models, are just that. Like maps, you file off all the interesting details to get a big picture. But a map of the US tells you very little about the stream in your back yard. The wildlife along it. When it floods. What vegetation grows because of that. The story is always deeper, more complicated, and more interesting the closer you look.