As a physicist who researches the sports world, I have been asked if science dehumanizes sports. I understand that basketball players do not hang in the air and fastballs do not rise. The truth about how the universe works has always fascinated more than myths. Scientific understanding of the sports world provides me with avenues to look at and enjoy sports in ways many people cannot. Understanding how a great sports feat is performed does the opposite for me of dehumanizing sports; it allows me to see how talented human beings can nearly reach the limits set by the constraining laws of physics. The awe that that gives me is entirely human.
I saw the terrible crash that took the life of Dan Wheldon today (click here for an ESPN story). The horror of the incident reminded me of how much humans push themselves and machines to cross a finish line in record time for the entertainment of those of us without the skill or the intestinal fortitude to embark on such a life. Upon seeing a great sporting event, my jaw drops first because of the tingling I feel inside induced by watching something so magnificent. Only later do I use science to help me understand what I saw. I am quite sure that science will help gain understanding of how such a terrible crash happened in Las Vegas, Nevada.
First and foremost, however, is that a wonderfully talented 33-year-old driver was killed. He won this year's Indy 500, his second win after his 2005 victory. More import than any race, Emberton-born Dan Wheldon leaves behind a wife and two very young sons. I have two young daughters. Words fail me for what Wheldon's family must be going through. For all that science helps us understand in the sports world, we are reminded today that real human beings are behind the helmets, masks, cars, and numbers that give us so many thrills. Dan Wheldon gave us a lot of racing thrills. My sincerest condolences go out to his family.