Kung Fu Science

By cjohnson | August 10, 2005 2:03 pm

I love Science. I love Kung Fu. If true for you too, Grasshopper, look at the Institute of Physics’ website Kung Fu Science!

See also the BBC news article about it and be sure to read some of the varied comments that readers made at the bottom of the article.

-cvj

P.S. Even if you’re not interested, have a look: Try to use the Flashmedia-driven option if you can, for maximum charming hamminess and corniness of some of the video (and stills!).

[Update (after actually looking at the site): Unfortunately the site dwells entirely on breaking of blocks of wood and concrete, which - in my opinion - is the very least interesting part of Kung Fu. But it's a good attempt at getting people (especially younger ones) interested in science, so why not?]

  • Jill

    Ummm….cvj….are you *sure* this is a good way to bring science to the masses? For example….
    “What these people are overlooking is that western science uses ‘laws of physics’ to determine a probable outcome based on already known equations, which to me seems a bit text-bookish and regurgitative. They aren’t taking into account quantum sciences that acknowledge things such as Qi (Chi) energies that exist in every one of us. This Qi energy may be able to be used to perform similar feats with with an amount of effort that would defy our ‘laws’ of physics.”

    How’s it feel to be textbookish and regurgative? What we really need is people like you saying loudly that most colloquial usage of the word “energy” involves the physics of expelling bovine excreta…..

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Hi Jill,

    Just to be sure we’re on the same page here: You’re quoting one the of the random people who commented on the BBC news article, which I deliberately pointed to because they were of that nature. Neither the article nor the IOP’s kungfuscience website (at least as far as I saw) say anything like that, right?

    -cvj

  • Aaron

    Cool site! The first few pages seemed pretty boring (I don’t know for sure because I skipped them ^_^), but once I hit the “Conservation of Energy” section it sped right up! I think this would make a great teaching exercise. And the high-speed videos were just rad!

    p.s. I’ve attempted to add myself to the set of “random people who commented on the BBC news article” — I hope you’ll find my coment less silly, if they publish it at all! ^_^

  • Jill

    “Neither the article nor the IOP’s kungfuscience website (at least as far as I saw) say anything like that, right?”
    Right, but all I meant was that it’s not enough just to talk about *correct* ideas in this sort of context. I’m afraid that many, many people think that when physicists talk about “energy” they really think that we are talking about the same kind of “energy” that new-agers love to go on about. It would have been better, particularly when talking about “eastern” things like kung fu and geomancy, to stress explicitly that those kinds of “energy” are nonsense. Note that this commenter thinks that quantum mechanics validates “qi” and you can bet that a lot of readers will somehow contrive to take away the message that modern physics justifies new age flakery.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Jill, I see. But that’s why we’re here. We can’t stop the noise out there, nor control it, or what people believe (nor should we). We just have to speak clearly when we can so as to provide a clear signal, and hope that they get it on their own. The BBC decided to place a comment section right under the news report so that people can say random stuff, and there’s nothing one can do to control what people look at when they come to look at the news, and maybe mix it up with the random stuff. Just like when one of us puts a post up here we have a comment section too. Random people can come and say all kinds of things (and they do). I just hope that they look at the product itself, which speaks sensibly about specific aspects of physics, and that they can distiguish the signal from the noise. All you can do is hope.

    -cvj

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    I was once asked, after a public talk, whether “dark energy” could be the same as “the Chinese concept of qi energy.” I said that one of the things we know about dark energy is that it is evenly distributed through space, so it can’t possibly have any effects on human life. So even though I don’t claim to understand “qi”, I’m pretty sure it’s not the dark energy.

    I don’t even think that all of these notions are necessarily nonsense — but they’re certainly not what physicists think of when we speak of “energy”, and they certainly have nothing to do with quantum mechanics. They may be useful metaphorical ways of thinking about the human beings, but we shouldn’t get confused by the sloppy language.

  • http://dftuz.unizar.es/~rivero/research/ Alejandro Rivero

    I remember these flying scenes in Tiger and Dragon, and it surprised me that any change of direction during the flight was done always either touching some wall or expelling an object, to preserve total momentum! Very different from superman-like flights.

  • Fyodor

    “I was once asked, after a public talk, whether “dark energy” could be the same as “the Chinese concept of qi energy.” I said that one of the things we know about dark energy is that it is evenly distributed through space, so it can’t possibly have any effects on human life. So even though I don’t claim to understand “qi”, I’m pretty sure it’s not the dark energy.”

    Sean, I need to talk to you about the power of prayer. Since power is the time derivative of energy, do you think that the dark energy could be the integral of the power of prayer? :-)

    In short, why do you want to cut more slack to new age nonsense than to old-fashioned nonsense?

    “I don’t even think that all of these notions are necessarily nonsense — but they’re certainly not what physicists think of when we speak of “energy”, and they certainly have nothing to do with quantum mechanics. They may be useful metaphorical ways of thinking about the human beings, but we shouldn’t get confused by the sloppy language.”

    Yeah Sean, I agree. The age-old warfare between kung fu and science is a misunderstanding. What we really have here is a case of non-overlapping magisteria. I’m sure you agree. :-) I wonder if Li Ka-Shing, one of the richest men in Asia, can be persuaded to set up a foundation to dish out money to people who can explain that there is no clash between modern science and the use of qi to break bricks…..The Bruce Lee Foundation for the Reconciliation of Quantum Physics and Breaking Things In a Really Cool Way.

    BTW, I can never stop laughing whenever I hear about non-overlapping magisteria. I mean, even a pompous ass of SJ Gould’s magnitude must have labored mightily to produce something *that* ludicrous.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Well, that’s all well and good, but I’d say there’s another way. Rather than bashing other people’s culture in a way that it did not ask for, I’d say focus on positive approach. It is simply more productive to point out where one can find aspects which are clear demonstrations of underlying physics principles, and then focus on that. Much of the “chi” or “qi” discussion about wether you think it is “real” or not, is a red herring. This is not a battle against a threat to engulf the teaching of science to our citizens, nor is it a battle against someone taking away people’s right to make choices about their own bodies or govern their lives, so in this case I say live and let live.

    A huge amount of Kung-Fu requires a good amount of concentration and focus. If you don’t know the science behind a particular move or moves (if there is a simply stated explanation), then why not think of it in terms of focusing your “qi” energy? Whatever works. If you do know the science, then you can think about it in terms of impulse and momentum transfer, and do it that way. (Sometimes it is just a different set of words for the same things. And actually the modern science words have been around for less time, so we should not be so hasty.)

    While doing it the “physics way”, strive to let others know that you have a way of thinking about it that – in your view – does not need to invoke “qi” and uses the same principles that other parts of their world does. They can then make the choice.

    And I do think that a lot of this is still a language problem. When somebody outside the context of kung fu misuses (in the context of the conventions of science) a word such as “acceleration” or “power”, as is common, we don’t jump on them and tell them their undermining science (God, I hope not!). We make adjustments to understand what they’re saying, and if appropriate, we let them know the “correct” usage of the words, and why to correct usage (knowing the difference between power and energy, between speed and velocity, etc) can sharpen their reasoning.

    Furthermore, Chi or Qi energy sometimes have a very appropriate usage in many cases that have nothing to do with physical energy, but everything to do with motivation, focus, feelings of well-being, etc – which then help you adjust your body’s global poise and attittude transfer physical energy in a physical act. We don’t have any equations for those, so why not leave them in the language of metaphor until (if ever) we can do better?

    Best,

    -cvj

  • http://dftuz.unizar.es/~rivero/research/ Alejandro Rivero

    If I remember well, energy is the capability to generate work, work is the capability to push a force across a distance, and force is an entity able to accelerate a body, being acceleration any change of speed, either in modulus or direction. The problem is that common language has not so many words to describe dynamics, so they use energy for everything. But sometimes the use coincides, ie it means the capability to generate work.

  • Steve

    What about the aerodynamics of Kung Fu throwing stars?Inspired by the David Carradine Kung Fu series I actually made some of these when I was about 13 or so. My father had some sheet metal (aluminum) of various thicknesses in the shed and these huge cutters you could use to cut it like scissors. Anyway, I cut out these (rough) star shapes after drawing it out with a felt tip pen, and experimented with various thicknesses and sizes. I then sharpened them up with a carborundum stone you use to sharpen scissors. And they worked!! The largest thickest ones worked best. Below a certain size there was too much air resistance. It also lead to a lot of holes in the bedroom doors! My friends wanted one too. My father was none too placed with the star shapes cut out of his metal or the holes in the doors though.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Definitely not one to try at home for the kids these days… “you’ll put somebody’s eye out…” :-)

    -cvj

  • Steve

    Around 12 or 13 I went through what could only be described as a “Weapons Phase”. This also included making bows and arrows. Arrows constructed from thin bamboo, glue, bird feathers and the blades from a swiss army knife! My dad then decided to buy me the real thing and I was enrolled in an archery club, thus making life much safer for everyone I suppose:). I friend that I had at the time, with similar interests, discovered that ‘deflecting spears with your bare hands’ the way David Carridine does at the opening of Kung Fu is not really a good idea. Fortunately, we used only bits of long blunt garden bamboo and his bruises were not so bad. And no eyes were lost thankfully:)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    I went through a “weapons phase” at around that age too! Yep….home made bows and arrows did feature… Much later on, I became to appreciate more the position of open/bare hand combat forms and techniques at the pinnacle of what can be done both functionally and (especially) artistically. Then I realised that the “weapons” are just extensions of those basic forms….

    It is all so much like dance wich is why I love it now (since these days I’m not being called upon much to defend my home and family against marauding warlords in hand-to-hand combat! :-) ). On that more artistic note, I love some of the wonderful choreography involving various longer devices (swords, spears). Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi’s scene towards the end of the film “Crouching Tiger…” (choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping) is one of the most beautiful and wonderful I’ve ever seen. And keeping the physics in there somewhere, I do love the internal physical consistency those scenes have (overall) in terms of overall balance, etc. (yes….even though they can jump really high and fly a bit !!) (Alejandro actually already mentioned this point.)

    Cheers,

    -cvj

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