Chad Orzel sees science all around him, whether he’s teaching it in a classroom, playing pickup basketball at Union College’s Memorial Fieldhouse or kicking back to watch the National Football League.
Being an associate professor of physics and chairman of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Union explains some of the fascination.
“I do believe the scientific process is used in all the things we do,” he said Thursday. “And there few things as ruthlessly scientific as big sports.”
That’s why he is so puzzled by Deflategate — science should have said there was little to gain and a lot to lose.
The scandal surrounds the AFC champion New England Patriots and whether the team purposely deflated footballs in its conference title game against the Indianapolis Colts last weekend. In Sunday night’s game, 11 of the 12 game balls were reportedly found to be underinflated by about two pounds each; by rule, balls must be inflated to 121⁄2 to 131⁄2 pounds per square inch.
At the request of an academic blog, The Conversation, Orzel even did an experiment, determining the loss of air pressure could not have been the result of weather. He could have quickly done the calculations using math, but instead, he took two old balls borrowed from the Dutchmen football team, pumped them up and stuck them in a department freezer — profs are not above a little showmanship.
“It’s one of the stranger things I’ve done,” said Orzel, a New York Giants fan married to a New England Patriots fan.
Yes, the footballs dropped about two pounds — same as in the Patriots’ case. But …
“Of course, the temperature difference involved was a little extreme — from about 68 F in my office, down to about -10 F in the freezer,” Orzel wrote in a post that appeared Thursday. “So, you can use temperature changes to produce the pressure change seen by investigators, but the temperature required would’ve matched the legendary Ice Bowl of 1967. Last Sunday’s game was played in pouring rain at about 50 F, so unless they did the pre-game testing of the balls in a sauna, or the post-game investigation in a meat locker, thermodynamics alone can’t get the Patriots off the hook.”
In easy-to-understand language, he explained why underinflated footballs would not fly farther, citing the ideal gas law. The short take: Volume doesn’t change much with pressure, and underinflated balls might be more subject to air resistance.
But he did say there was a physiological benefit: The ball would be easier to compress, and therefore grip and catch.
“In cool, rainy conditions, where the ball becomes wet and slippery, this works to the advantage of the quarterback and receivers,” he wrote.
The one answer his scientific process couldn’t answer is why — as in why do it. He said based on his experiments, the benefit was minimal. Oh, and the Patriots won the game 45-7 to advance to the Super Bowl, where they will face the Seattle Seahawks on Feb. 1.
“Why do you bother? It’s a little weird,” Orzel said Thursday, sitting in his office. “I don’t really get it. It’s a pretty big risk.”
In his post, he conceded the psychology of Patriots coach Bill Belichick “is a mystery much too deep for physics.”
At separate press conferences Thursday, both Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady said they had no explanations for the underinflated balls. The NFL is investigating, but Orzel is not confident Commissioner Roger Goodell, criticized this season for his handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence case and other matters, will get it right.
“They will make up a punishment — probably arbitrarily,” Orzel said.
In other words, the NFL won’t follow the scientific process. And that bugs him.